Friday, January 20, 2006

Louise McNeill Meets a Local Color Author, But Doesn't Enjoy It

Book Cover: The Milkweed Ladies

You may have noticed that I collect quotes from the urban sophisticate set about natives of rural areas. Because Appalachia is a much disparaged rural region, I have quite a collection about my adopted home. From nineteenth century "local color" writers to modern horror movie screenplays (which are so often set in West Virginia that we laugh about it), there is an extensive literature detailing the shortcomings of those hillbillies. Pocahontas County native Louise McNeill describes her first encounter with this genre, at age eleven, in her memoir The Milkweed Ladies (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988).

The summer I was eleven, we held a Vacation Bible School for the little children at the Lower Church. It was a new thing, and a lady came from way-off to hold the school. Hiram Barns, who lived in a neat painted cottage just above the village and was active in the church, had helped with all the plans. The lady's name was Miss Virginia, and Mr. and Mrs. Barns had her to stay with them and fixed their spare room all nice for her. Since I was a big girl then, I helped Miss Virginia with her teaching. She had colored paper and crayons for the little kids, and new songs to teach, and a little play to put on. I went down to the church every morning, and I loved Miss Virginia. She had a nice soft voice and curly hair and wore lace on her white blouse. I read to the little kids and helped them with their songs. Miss Virginia let me take them outdoors, where we sat in a circle on the grass near the graveyard, and I read them stories about Jesus. The children got to take their pictures home, and on the last day Miss Virginia had a program so all the mothers could come to see.

When Miss Virginia told us good-bye, I almost cried and could think of no one else for a week. Later, we began to hear things about her. It turned out that Miss Virginia had gone away and written a bad story about us in a church magazine. Hiram Barnes was a subscriber to the magazine; and when it came, there was a story about the community of S---, by Miss Virginia. In the story, she told how it was up in the mountains, how ignorant and crude the people were. She told about Hiram Barns's house and made fun of it and of how Mrs. Barns dipped snuff. Hiram Barns passed the magazine all around the neighborhood, and we all read what Miss Virginia thought about us. I felt sorrow and disillusionment, and, for the first time, I began to wonder about the people beyond Swago Crick.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Nice quote. You know, I have to agree with her. I sure do wonder sometimes about the people out there.... :)