I chose the following novels with publication dates spanning 26 years:
- Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina (1987)
- Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (1993)
- Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1994)
- Gap Creek by Robert Morgan (1999)
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (2001)
- Bloodroot by Amy Greene (2010)
- Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (2013).
In the first series of posts, I'm going to look at the opening chapter of each novel and examine how the author executed the very tricky technique of rendering dialect - both in the dialogue and in the narration. Characterization will necessarily be included in these discussions because narration and dialogue are techniques that are used to develop the characters. The tricky thing about this, which I struggle with in my writing, is developing realistic dialogue and first person narration while simultaneously not playing into or perpetuating regional stereotypes.
My family is Appalachian, all of them from as far back as I can trace. Most of them were sustenance farmers, which means they grew just enough to feed their families and kept whatever animals they needed to ensure their family's survival. Many of the men were coal miners. The families were huge with a baby born at a rate of about one per year, especially in the earliest generations, and each family lost a good percentage of the babies. I have reviewed more census records than I can count and learned that hardly anyone before my great grandparents' generation attended school or could read or write.
I want to honor my ancestors by realistically portraying fictional characters who lived in the same place. What I know of them is they were smart people despite the lack of traditional education; they survived under impossible circumstances. To portray them as anything else would be rude and disrespectful.
When I was a child in the 1970s, I spent some time in Phelps, Kentucky, with my grandparents. I remember how tickled my grandma was with all the hype about "hillbillies" (which I now realize is a a bad word, something never to say out loud). I remember going with my grandparents to a restaurant that had a sign on the table with a translation for "hillbilly" language, like a "poke" is a bag (if I remember that correctly). My grandma thought that was awesome and got a huge kick out of The Beverly Hillbillies. She thought it was so funny anyone would find Appalachians entertaining and didn't mind it at all. She didn't perceive any of it to be negative or condescending; I guess it's all a matter of perspective. I think even if she did perceive it to be rude, she would have turned the other cheek; that's just how she was.
Recently, I've read a huge amount of scholarship on the ways stereotypes have negatively impacted this region and its people. I tend to agree and choose not to contribute to the stereotypes.
One of the things I'm going to look at in my course (and in this series of posts) is whether the depiction of Appalachians in these novels changed over time and how that depiction was pulled off technically. By the end of the semester, I hope to have reached a decision about what techniques related to dialect and characterization I will use in my novels.
All of this is way too much for a short blog post, so I'll look at one novel at a time and maybe knit it together into a longer essay in the end. I might do a little profile on each of the authors too if anyone is interested.
Have any of you read any of these novels or other books from these authors? Anyone writing historical or regional fiction where dialect is an issue?