Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In the Smokies: Selected Reading

We spent much of Sunday in the Smokies—the perfect Father's Day gift for Dr. H. The day was absolutely perfect in every way. Having these beautiful mountains 20-30 minutes away is amazing. I often forget that the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S., with 9 million visitors each year. We used to avoid going to the Smokies on weekends from June-October because the traffic can be bumper-to-bumper, and that is not a pleasant way to spend one's day in the mountains. But we know lots of off-the-beaten path places now that are quick to get to and very quiet, and there is just nothing like being in the mountains by the river on a hot summer day.

If you haven't visited the Smokies, please don't let the 9 million tourists scare you off. Only 1 million of them actually do more than drive through; the other 8 million spend most of their time doing stuff in Gatlinburg. If you want a serene mountain experience, you may want to consider avoiding the touristy and heavily trafficked Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. There are many other entrances to the park that are quiet and beautiful, including Townsend, the tiny town just south of us.

I'm going to share a few of our favorite books about the Smokies. My favorite kids books are these two written by Lisa Horstman: The Troublesome Cub and The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball. Another must-have if you are visiting the park is Who Pooped in the Park? (These are available for all the national parks, so be sure to get the Smokies-specific one.) I love this beautiful Appalachian ABCs, and Cynthia Rylant's When I Was Young in the Mountains --the story of a childhood in the mountains--is pure poetry. Speaking of poetry, Nikki Giovanni is from Knoxville, and I love the picture book based on her poem "Knoxville, Tennessee."

For young adults (and adult readers, too), Catherine Marshall's Christy is a classic. This is the story of a privileged young society woman who goes to teach school to the mountain kids in the Smokies. For younger readers, there is a good series of chapter books based on the novel Christy; my 10-year-old loves these books. She also loves the Mandie books by Lois Gladys Leppard, which all take place in and around the Smokies.

I've noticed that the Southern Literature challenge is a popular challenge this summer in the book blog community. I am a huge fan of Southern Lit, both classic and contemporary. A few of contemporary authors whose novels take place in and around the Smokies are Sharyn McCrumb, Adriana Trigiani, and Robert Morgan. In She Walks These Hills, McCrumb weaves a modern-day mystery in with a mountain legend. I'm not crazy about McCrumb's Elizabeth MacPherson mystery books, but I absolutely love her Southern mountain novels. Others include If I Ever Return, Pretty Peggy-O; The Ballad of Frankie Silver; The Songcatcher; The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter; and a couple others. While each novel stands on its own, many of the same characters appear in all the novels.

Adriana Trigiani has a collection of three novels--Big Stone Gap, Big Cherry Holler, and Milk Glass Moon--that take place over in Virginia. They're not exactly Smoky Mountain lit, but the characters and dialect would fit right in here. I've just noticed that there is a fourth in the series now, Home to Big Stone Gap, which I'll be adding to my TBR list.

Robert Morgan is one of my favorite Southern writers. He is much more lyrical than Trigiani and McCrumb. I haven't read all his books, including his newest one Boone, but I love what I've read: This Rock, The Truest Pleasure, Gap Creek, and The Hinterlands. His characters, dialect, setting--everything is beautiful and true to the area. You can imagine Morgan as an oral storyteller in each of these books.

One more fascinating novel that takes place in the Smoky Mountains is Francine Rivers' The Last Sin Eater. The story is about the old folk custom of a community "sin eater," who is said to absolve the residents of their sins by "eating them." I had never heard of this odd custom until reading this book, and I found the concept fascinating.

All of the above reading material provides a great introduction to this unique mountain area. I would be remiss if I didn't recommend a couple of great guides for once you are actually in the Smokies. Dr. H. has two favorites. Hiking Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains by Kenneth Wise is his favorite for family-type hikes and excursion. For tougher, more backcountry hikes, he recommends Hiking Trails of the Smokies, which is published by the GSMNP service.

Have I whet your appetite for the Great Smoky Mountains? Even if you can't come for a visit, you can get a taste of the Smokies in these books.

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