Ayer (Tales of Chinkapin Creek, 2011) returns with more sparkling sketches of rural West Virginians who lived by their hands, hearts and wits before the age of machines.
Life in the Mountain State in the early 1900s was blessed but hard—even for Nellie Wister, the eldest daughter of prominent farmer Jack and homemaker extraordinaire Carrie, who together raised five children while presiding over hired hands and serving girls who might have graced the set of Upstairs Downstairs, the Appalachia edition. As in her debut volume of stories, Ayer recreates the titular riverine patch in a series of sketches told by Nellie. To the Wister homestead come vendors, gypsies, widows and farm boys marked by solitude, struggle or need—sometimes all three. Yet Nellie’s nostalgia can be as devilishly wry as it is deeply profound. When indoor plumbing is installed on the farm, unflattering misadventures follow. Later, an impending trip to Baltimore sparks a sewing marathon that hushes the household for days. Oddballs with hard-luck stories emerge. There’s the blacksmith, Robert E. Lee Kilgore, a tortured soul who forges a macabre legacy, and the pacifist basket weaver, Levi Eads, who recounts a deadly appointment at Antietam. Ayer’s prose is accomplished throughout, and her details intoxicate—from a blind organ tuner’s flylike fingers and tiny tools to a corpse’s wrinkled trousers. Yet a tendency to summarize occasionally dilutes the drama of otherwise well-told tales. That, and some sentimental stretches, make this a slightly shallower Creek than its predecessor. But only slightly. Especially rich is the author’s descriptive language: The dew before sunrise that cures freckles; the ring of blackberries that sprouted from a lightning strike; the echoing pop of exploding pig bladders announcing well-being to distant neighbors; calf’s jelly and horehound lozenges and leather baseballs fashioned from balls of socks. This is a book to be read much as one would listen to a reed organ, hearing beyond its deep tones high piano notes that herald the changing timbre of a new age.
Finely nuanced hymn to the world before Ikea, and the stout West Virginians who peopled it. Recommended.