Book Review: Fiction
“Requiem by Fire”
By Wayne Caldwell
Random House, 352 pages, $25
By Gina Webb
In the 1920s, the U.S. government heeded warnings that the forests of the Smoky Mountains faced imminent destruction if timber companies continued to clear-cut there. Roughly 300,000 acres had already disappeared, and wildlife habitat vanished along with it. To save what remained, the area was declared a national park. It belonged, the government said, to the American people.
The American people who lived there, however, had to go.
In his outstanding debut novel, “Cataloochee,” Asheville native Wayne Caldwell traced the hundred-year history of the tenacious settlers who farmed the high mountain valleys of North Carolina. Inspired by stories of Caldwell’s own family, the book ended just as the Cataloochans learned that their homesteads were destined to become part of the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Now Caldwell returns to Cataloochee with “Requiem by Fire,” a remarkable sequel that chronicles the tough choice facing the members of the community: Accept a government buyout for their land and move, or agree to a lifetime lease with restrictions that made survival almost impossible.
As the book opens in October 1928, government deals are on the table for the hundred or so families in Cataloochee, offers that soon prove to be insultingly low. Even worse are the reduced bids made to those who choose to stay, coupled with bans on hunting or fishing unless “in season,” tree cutting, cattle grazing, all new building and ground breaking, liquor production and sales.
Jake Carter, whose family has survived four generations there, can’t believe his ears. “Let’s sum things up,” he says. “You’ll freeze to death of a winter with no wood to burn. You’ll starve to death because you can’t kill game. About all that’s left is die and leave it.” Correction: “One may not bury in the cemeteries without a permit.”
As a result, most will leave one of the most beautiful places they’ve ever known, where “gabbing starlings festooned power lines, and waxwings and robins migrating from northern haunts tore berries from bittersweet vines and scattered orange droppings behind … Dogwood berries shone red ripe, roadside asters winked blue, and spiny sweet gum balls littered the road.”
Caldwell writes with reverence and humor about these resilient, kindhearted souls, his unhurried style transporting us so fully into their daily lives that it’s easy to forget the looming end to their way of life.
“Son,” Silas Wright tells the new warden, “this old man ain’t going to quit fishing because you wear that uniform. If you don’t want to write me up, don’t come here. … I ain’t fighting the park,” he says truthfully. “I just ain’t paying no attention to it.”
In a wry commentary on the preservation of Cataloochee’s “precious heritage,” Mattie Banks convinces her aunt Mary to sit in a rocker at their newly opened country store in Haywood, N.C., to provide an authentic touch.
“Look at you,” Mattie says. “The essence of a mountain woman … You know how to spin and embroider and quilt and I don’t know what all. Churn, can, weave. And look at all this stuff you have brought,” she adds, eyeing the belongings Mary brought from home. “Quilts, hooked rugs, furniture, geegaws of all kinds. It’s perfect. Tourists will buy anything.”
Caldwell pays a tender tribute to some unexpected heroes of this disappearing world: the agents assigned to purchase the land and police its new tenants, a team handpicked to include men with ties to the community. Men like newly appointed park warden Jim Hawkins, who grew up in Cataloochee.
On the day the directive comes to set fire to all the vacated buildings — including his childhood home — Hawkins can barely obey. “One of the points they sold this damn park with was that it would ‘save the American public’s heritage.’ Bull feathers,” he cries. “Here I am, burning mine.”
Hawkins’ reason for accepting such a wrenching job might also be found on Wayne Caldwell’s résumé: “As long as I live,” he says, “I’ll remember where people used to live, where the cemeteries are, where the springs are, where a man can find anything from healing herbs to snakes. I’ll be able to tell people about that. When folks come back after they move away – or their children come years from now – I can show them where they came from. I’ll remember. Part of my heart is there.”