Sunday, November 11, 2007

Donald McCaig--Busy Literary Neighbor

Book cover: Rhett Butler's People

A literary neighbor, Donald McCaig of Highland County, Virginia, is having a busy year. Early in the year, Canaan: A Novel of the Reunited States after the War was published, and this month Rhett Butler's People has come out. It's an "authorized sequel" to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and it rated both a review and an author profile in The Washington Post.

The November 7 review, 'Gone' but Not Forgotten by Bethanne Patrick, is mostly positive, and the author profile, The Rhett Stuff: Virginia Writer Took on Tara by Linton Weeks, is quite charming.

....You know when you approach McCaig that you're in the company of a real character. He's got an earthy sense of humor and a laugh that sounds like a vintage tractor on a cold morning. He's a barrel-chested man with wispy white hair, a bushy white mustache and cumulus-cloud eyebrows....

...[T]he McCaigs settled in this majestic, mountainous county in western Virginia, hard against the West Virginia state line. With 2,500 residents, Highland is one of the least-populated counties east of the Mississippi. "There are 150 people in our Zip code," he says. The county seat is Monterey, population 156.

Book Cover: An American Homeplace

In the 40 or so years they have lived here, the McCaigs have put down deep roots. McCaig is an elder at the nearby Williamsville Presbyterian Church, with a congregation of 12. "Half of them believe in the rapture, and I believe in gay marriage, and everyone agrees to just not talk about those things," he says.

He is also a member of the volunteer fire department. While writing books over the years, he has also become a serious sheep farmer -- the McCaigs have 180 acres on the Cowpasture River -- and a top-notch dog trainer.

These days, the herd is small. Once the fences are strengthened, McCaig plans to add another hundred or so sheep to the 20 he is raising now. A trio of collies -- June, Luke and Peg -- do the herding. "Peg," he says, "is a dope." A couple of guard dogs sleep with the sheep.

Throughout the year, McCaig enters his collies in field trials, competitions in which dogs herd sheep in various farmlike tasks. June, he says, was a semifinalist in a national contest in Gettysburg, Pa. He is hoping to take her to the world championships in Wales next year. But for now, he is on the road.....

McCaig's 1992 book of essays, An American Homeplace, is an excellent, deeply researched portrayal of our part of the world. It has sections I reread often.


Sherry said...

The Cowpasture River? Sure enough?

Have you read any of McCaig's books? This profile makes him sound like some one with all Mark Twain's looks and none of his satiric wit.

Rebecca Clayton said...

Sure enough! The Cowpasture River's on the east side of Bullpasture Mountain. Bullpasture River runs along the west side. As the crow flies, it's not far from Droop Mountain, but I believe it would be a 2 1/2 hour drive from here.

I really like his book of essays about Highland County, "An American Homeplace." He did his research on Highland County history, and on agriculture in Virginia and elsewhere, and he put it together with his personal back-to-the-land hippie story in an engaging way. He just cuts his hair like Mark Twain, though. He doesn't try to be witty.

Now, I've only read the border collie novels. I believe I would have loved these books above all others when I was a kid. They use adult vocabulary, but I read a lot of adult books then--I just skipped the big words or guessed at them.

I suppose I'll read his Virginia Civil War novels eventually, and I expect to be pleased with the quality of his research. It's just that local Civil War history is such grim stuff--I can't imagine it will make a fun read.