Veteran short-story writer Ayer strikes gold with these enchanting sketches of the motley relatives and neighbors who peopled her mother’s rural West Virginia girlhood—back when the 20th century was young and spry.
In 1903, Nellie Wister was 8, the eldest daughter of a successful farmer and a proud homemaker with deep roots in Chinkapin Creek, a frontier world of fob hats, molasses and moonshine, tucked into a remote corner of the Mountain State. The automobile had not yet arrived, and men were still called home from the fields by dinner bells ringing across blue hills and green valleys. Channeling her mother’s voice, Ayer employs well-crafted narrative nuggets and crisp dialogue—plus a few choice nostalgic photographs—to recreate the impressions made on Nellie’s alert young mind by assorted visitors to the Wister homestead, where mares are covered, tobacco is spit and pear butter is turned. We meet the perpetually dressed-in-mourning Jane Hamrick, who “had fifteen children by fifteen different men.” We learn that Cousin Jonathan “ain’t worth the powder it would take to blow him up.” Then there’s Cecil McComas, who enjoyed the distinction of having two horses shot from under him during the Battle of Sharpsburg and “always spoke as if he were shouting over cannon fire.” And one Miss Nettie Hunter who, when introduced, “couldn’t be counted on to answer because she took laudanum.” If Jane Austen had dabbled in whittled wood instead of pieces of ivory, she may have produced this winsome little book. Yet Ayer’s wry sketches plumb profound themes. As her tales accumulate, the travails of the poor, the lost and the luckless of Chinkapin Creek quietly emerge, along with Nellie’s growing sophistication and wonderment over the vicissitudes of courtship, marriage, faith and death. Ayer skillfully imbues the raw perceptions of youth with the wisdom of age. Her Chinkapin Creek is at once funny, fulsome and strange—a place where small, obscure lives achieve a poetry all their own.
An accomplished, creative memoir by a writer with serious literary tools—West Virginia, we hardly knew your soulful depths.