Family stories, told again and again, but never quite the same
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly all of us have our full share of childhood memories. But few of us are willing -- or able -- to dig as deep into our store of memories as does Sarah Beth Childers in her impressive new memoir, "Shake Terribly the Earth: Stories From An Appalachian Family" (Ohio University Press, $24.95).
Childers, who spent her girlhood in Huntington, grew up listening to her family's stories. She heard them riding to school with her mother, playing Yahtzee with her grandmother, walking to the bowling alley with her one-legged grandfather and eating casseroles at the yearly family reunions.
"My family communicates in stories," she writes. "To say she loves me, my mom has told me I was the most beautiful newborn in the hospital nursery ... The rest of my family is the same: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousin's yarn about the Great Depression, switch-wielding math teachers, communists posing as harmless radio hosts, nickels on dead people's eyes. The same stories, again and again, never quite the same, all tainted by faulty memory, by imagination, by sunshine, by mood."
Childers listened closely and remembered well, and now has lovingly put it all down on the printed page. Her story is surely a familiar one to any of us raised in Appalachia. Her memories are, to at least some extent, our own. As befits her young years spent attending a Pentecostal church and a Baptist school, she takes the title of her book from a Bible passage (Isaiah 2:19-21), underscoring the truth that often emerges when the earth shakes terribly beneath us.
She pulls no punches in what she recounts. Consider this early paragraph in her word portrait of her grandmother: "Granny smoked in her house with the windows shut. She appeared to us in a cloud. Her walls had turned brown and a romantic print of children by a lake a dull yellow. Nicotine crept through the cracks around her thin front door, darkening the edges and frame. We smelled Granny before we even knocked. All her food tasted blackened. Sipping her sweet tea, I detected nicotine in the ice cubes."
As Childers recalls, taking her grandmother to the store was a welcome escape from the house and its nicotine cloud but carried its own risk. There was no telling what she might do or say.
"We cringed at the thought of Granny in public ... She might refuse to walk across a parking lot until a 'colored man' had gotten into his car. She might mention that her toaster had whispered to her that her next-door neighbor was molesting her grandchildren."
Other family members are described in equally candid fashion - "warts and all," so to speak, with no attempt to sugarcoat things.
After I finished reading "Shake Terribly the Earth," I emailed Childers and asked her if she had warned her family about what she was writing. "Did you perhaps change some names?" I inquired. Tucking my tongue firmly in my cheek, I asked: "Is everybody in your family still speaking to you?"
"I did change names out of respect for my family," she replied. "While not everyone in my family has been happy about my book, they are all still speaking to me, so far. I wrote it out of love for my family. When I was very little, I was saddened by the fact that my great-grandmother (Pearl Carter in the book) had Alzheimer's, and her amazing stories about our family were slipping away."
"I wrote the book," she said, "in an attempt to preserve my family's history in the best way I knew how, and as a way to explore the ways my family history has affected me as a person. I also wrote it as a way to talk to the dead - particularly my PaPa Ralph and Uncle Mark, and I dedicated the book to them. My PaPa passed away when I was eight years old, and I still feel his loss every day. Seeing him alive on the page has helped me deal with that loss, and the same goes for my Uncle Mark, who was a very important person in my life until he passed away five years ago."
Childers lives and writes in Richmond, Ind., where she is a writer in residence at Earlham College. Previously, she served a lecturer at West Virginia University and as a visiting professor of creative nonfiction in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She received her MFA in creative writing at WVU and in 2009 was a recipient of the Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship at Colgate University.
James E. Casto of Huntington, a retired newspaper editor, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.