The “Foreignness” of Cloud of Witnesses

(Adapted from a talk I gave at the 2019 Illinois Reading Council Conference for teachers and librarians.)

After writing and publishing my middle-grade novel, Cloud of Witnesses (Golden Alley Press), I discovered that it is but one of a handful of books currently being published that represents rural life. Most books coming out today for youth is set in cities or suburbia. Think Jason Reynolds whose books address themes of gang violence and inner-city living. I’m also reminded of Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, herself a product of the exburbs of New York City. Books such as these transport readers into their world very successfully, and are indeed very popular. Yet, it seems that forgotten landscapes, hard-scrabble, rural, rust-belt are falling away from the American consciousness.

After the Election of 2016, journalists and political analysts sought to understand what they termed “fly-over” country. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance shot to the top f the bestseller list and was a stand-in for the voice of this underestimated population. I didn’t particularly think the book was that great, especially for the latter reason. There had to be more stories to represent these people and I set out to find them.

First, some context:

1920: 95% of U.S. population lived in the country, were considered rural
2010: 80.7% now lives in cities

Books such as Charlotte’s Web and Blue Willow, both Newbery Honor books told stories of families on farms. In Roll of Thunder Hear Mt Cry, Mildred Taylor tells the story of an African American family in backwater Mississippi during the Great Depression.

My book, CLOUD OF WITNESSES, has to do with Appalachia. There are a number of sweet stories that hearken back to a time, where, yes there was great poverty but also great wealth in spirit. They were poor, but by God, self-sufficient. They were proud.Books by Cynthia Rylant: When I was Young in the Mountains, Missing May
Earl Hammer Jr. Spencer’s Mountain which inspired The Waltons, TV series
Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam Jr. set in coal country West Virginia.
Jim the Boy by Tony Early
Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera Cleaver, Bill Cleaver
Ida Early Comes Over the Mountain, in the vein of Christy, only more homespun and ridiculous
(think: Depression-era, Blue Ridge Mary Poppins)
Phyliss Naylor’s Shiloh, dog story
Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, (2014) touches upon spending summer with relatives in South Carolina while growing up.

Rebecca Caudill, wrote of Appalachia and was author of A Certain Small Shepherd: “The people found their pleasures in the simple things of life. They possessed a kind of profound wisdom, characteristic of those who live close to Nature, who walk in step with Nature’s rhythm, and who depend on Nature for life itself.”

Today the countryside is equated with opioid addiction, children in foster care, grandparents raising children, a general hopelessness. A kind of Zoombieland. Several mystery writers are turning their eyes today to these more remote landscapes as a kind of dystopian setting for their novels. The sparsely-populated countryside, islands, mountain communities that breed extreme violence and desperation.

For children the most recent of Dave Eggers’s many books is The Lifters, a magic realist tale written for eight- to 12-year-olds, in which the “adults have lost hope, lost their way, and it’s the kids who say: ‘Here’s the task, let’s get to it.’” The setting is a town that used to be proudly defined by what it manufactured, but has been gutted by sadness and loss of identity. Carousel is collapsing in on itself, with sinkholes appearing everywhere; it is up to children – the “lifters” – to go underground and prop up its foundations, and those of other disconsolate places around the world.Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin
Dairy Queen by Catherine Murdock, somewhat humorous YA girl growing up on a dairy farm,
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, rural magical realism
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, is an amazing Faulkner-esque novel, rendered in an unforgettable voice that is both poetic and real. Set in a rural Mississippi town 12 days before Hurricane Katrina, it is about siblings bonding together to survive their poverty and their pain, in a place that is about to turn against them, swiftly and furiously and forever. WINNER of the NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons.

My book is historical fiction. Cloud of Witnesses is about a young boy growing up in the foothills of Appalachia in southeastern Ohio. Typical of the region, they are poor

*how many times have we heard the word “hard-scrabble” to describe this group of people?*

a somewhat dysfunctional—what I would call normal—family. The protagonist Roland feels like an outsider to himself and to his family. He loves to read, and the summer before 8th grade reads Great Expectations and decides he needs a prisoner, someone to jump out behind a tombstone or one of his brother’s old cars resting on the hillside shrouded in mist, to save him. But there isn’t anyone. Throughout the course of the story he comes to find (a coming-of-age story) that he is control of his destiny, that he can determine how his life will go. There are also parallels in the narrative of the hero journey, references the Odyssey and Star Wars. By the end of the book Roland realizes the cloud of witnesses, saints and sinners all of them, are the ones who keep him grounded, know him the best, will ultimately be his source of strength.

Cloud of Witnesses is meant to be a realistic look into one family’s struggle and how one can navigate the intricacies of family life. It is overall an uplifting read. Available from Golden Alley Press and at Amazon. Reading Guide for the classroom also available.

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