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Masterfully wrought and keenly observed, Mountain Path draws on Harriette Simpson Arnow’s experiences as a schoolteacher in downtrodden Pulaski County, Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachia, prior to WWII. Far from a quaint portrait of rural life, Arnow’s novel documents hardships, poverty, illiteracy, and struggles. She also recognizes a fragile cultural richness, one characterized by “those who like open fires, hounds, children, human talk and song instead of TV and radio, the wisdom of the old who had seen...
Masterfully wrought and keenly observed, Mountain Path draws on Harriette Simpson Arnow’s experiences as a schoolteacher in downtrodden Pulaski County, Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachia, prior to WWII. Far from a quaint portrait of rural life, Arnow’s novel documents hardships, poverty, illiteracy, and struggles. She also recognizes a fragile cultural richness, one characterized by “those who like open fires, hounds, children, human talk and song instead of TV and radio, the wisdom of the old who had seen all of life from birth to death,” and which has since been eroded by the advent of highways and industry. In Mountain Path, Arnow exquisitely captures the voices, faces, and ways of a people she cared for deeply, and who evoked in her a deep respect and admiration.
Last night she had watched a group of teamsters from her hotel window, and they were like that. Poor people, and ignorant and unambitious, holding in them a curious power to make her feel young and afraid. Superintendent Russell made a little scraping with his chair, and she felt guilty as a too-obedient child caught in some unaccustomed mischief, and hastily looked at the man across the table. He had not noticed her lapse of attention, but sat with his eyes yet fixed on the map, a blunt forefinger sliding through a narrow twist of the blue snake that was Cumberland River.
The map, a geological survey of Somerset County, Kentucky, was spread backward to her vision so that at present she could get small sense from it, but must sit, contenting herself with silence, until the employer of district teachers found the place that was Canebrake. She watched the man's sliding forefinger, and thought that it was ugly with its ragged black nail and red hairs. She did not remember ever having watched a finger like it before. She thought of the hands and fingers she had known back there in Lexington: dried yellow-white fingers of her teachers, her aunt's expressionless too-white hands, brown yellow fingers of her classmates, and her own. She spread her hands and looked at them as if seeing them for the first time.
Small and ringless and smooth, a pale blemish of cigarette stain on two, deeper acid stains on her right forefinger and thumb, and on the long finger of her right hand a small callus rising in a little mound of yellow thickened flesh below the nail on the left side. Pencils had done that; pencils covering yellow sheets and then neat note books with mechanical drawings, figures, symbols, all the jargon of trigonometry, analytics, the calculus, and physical chemistry. Under cover of the man's bowed head she rubbed hard against the bit of thickened flesh with her thumb. For the moment it seemed the only concrete evidence that she had lived twenty years before she came to sit in this office and had spent three of those years in making a mark on her finger. It would go away she thought with a childishly unreasonable sadness. How long was seven months—till February she had heard another teacher say at the meeting yesterday. Would she forget a lot in seven months? She couldn't graduate with her class in chemical engineering.
"It's about here," Superintendent Russell said without raising his eyes from the map. "You know," he continued, jocosely apologetic, "I've only been in office since January, an' I've never got around to goin' to Canebrake."
"How do I get there?"
The man slowly slipped two fingers of the hand not busied with the map through the red bristle of his hair. "A bus goes down Dixie. I reckon it's th' best plan to take it to High Rock." He laid the forefinger ruler fashion on the map and squinted at it, "About sixteen miles from High Rock I take it to be."
"The sixteen miles?"
He stared at the fly-specked map. He seemed not to want to meet her eyes. "Just go to High Rock. If you still want to go to Canebrake when you get that far mebbe you can find a way out. Ever ride a mule?"
"Yes," she lied.
"You'll most likely go on a mule if Lee Buck Cal meets you."
"Who is Lee Buck Cal?"
"Your trustee. I wrote him two weeks ago to meet the bus at High Rock today in case I found a teacher. I don't know if he got the letter."
"Don't they have mail down there?"
"Two or three times a week, I reckon. But Lee Buck may not live on the route or close to the office.... How much school work did you say you'd had? I mislaid the letter from the agency."
"Three years. I took classes in education last semester when I knew that I had to—that I wanted to teach," she corrected hastily, but not before the true meaning of her "wanted" was written in the man's shrewd eyes.
He tilted his chair backward against the window sill, and looked at her with a kind of amused speculation she thought. "You've had more college than most," he said, "but that won't mean a lot in Canebrake."
She wanted to cry out, "What will mean so much? Why won't you tell me about this place I am going to?" but only said, "I know," and was angry because this unkempt man in rusty clothes had power to make her afraid, and half sick with a heavy feeling of inaptitude. One studied three years, and learned things, and ranked in the upper two percent in achievement and intelligence, and then came out into the world for a job, and learned that the ability to ride a mule counted for more than an Einstein's knowledge of trigonometric formulae.
She wanted to ask a great many questions, but torn between a fear of seeming too ignorant on the one hand and not interested enough on the other, she kept silent until a tall man much like the muskmelon eater in the square pushed through the screen door leading from the hall, and claimed the superintendent's attention. "Howdies" were exchanged, and she learned that the individual answered to the name of Jess, and after ten minutes of listening to talk of roads, politics, and crops, she further learned that Jess was a trustee come from Ping School for a length of stove pipe and two panes of window glass. It was gratifying to know that in spite of the windows having been shot out no one was killed. One of Joe Dick Casseye's "prime sow hawgs" had been shot in a foreleg. The hog had been sleeping in or under the school house (she was unable to learn which) when Tom Ledbetter's "biggest boy got too full a moon an' shot at th' school house with no idee a doin' any harm, an' not knowin' there wuz a critter in a mile."
Eventually Mr. Russell went to a back room for the stove pipe, and Louisa was left alone with the trustee. She looked at him, her curiosity but poorly concealed, and wondered what her own would be like. Trustees, she had learned from bits of conversation overheard from her sister teachers yesterday, were all-powerful beings. They were school board, supervisor, principal, maintenance committee, and employer in one. They were omnipotent and in some cases all-pervading. Sometimes there were those who never came about from July to January but discharged the teacher with no recommendation because they had heard that she taught coal was made from snakes or did not believe in shouting at church.
She had already heard the tale of a certain Miss Fisher, a young thing out of Richmond, who lost her job last year by teaching that the limestone rocks about the school house were made by old oceans, and that the shells found in them were come from live animals living long ago. All Bronston had been scandalized. A sermon had been preached, having for its text Genesis II:2, wherein it is expressly stated that the rocks and everything else were made by God Almighty in six days.
Louisa had listened and learned. She would keep her mouth shut and teach the earth was flat with four corners if necessary. She had to keep the job. She had to have the fifty-six dollars a month, and save thirty-five from each pay day in order to go back to school in chemistry and mathematics and people of her own kind.
She became increasingly aware that the trustee was looking at her with some curiosity not unmixed with friendliness. He took a step backward, spat twice—first the juice and then the quid—pushed his hat about, evidently his manner of expressing both a respect for the woman present and his willingness to talk with her. She looked at him and smiled, then made vague motions over the map. "I'm trying to find the place where I teach," she began. "Canebrake. Do you know the best way to get there? I don't think it's on the map."
He looked at the map in brief silence. "I've been all over th' country but naiver used one a them things."
"Sometimes," she said, trying not to seem defensive, "they are a big help."
"If 'n ye kin read. Me I cain't read, but I been all over th' country."
She gave a whispered, "Oh," before comprehending suddenly that in this land illiteracy did not necessarily mean ignorance. She felt a disturbing respect for this tall, unshaven man who couldn't read. She felt he knew things, important things about living, had an understanding beyond her own. "Have you ever been there?" she asked, and awaited his answer with as much eagerness, she thought, as Queen Isabella must have held for the stories of Columbus. Really more. Queen Isabella wasn't going to the unknown place to live seven months with people she had never known.
"Seems so," he answered after a time. "A long time back 'fore th' last trouble happ'nd. A kind a lost like place in a bend uv Cumberland. People pore like hawgs in March. First school?"
She nodded because all at once she couldn't say anything. He grinned, and examined her critically, but much after the fashion of a man judging a mule he is already pretty certain of. He took a fresh chew of tobacco, then spoke, "Ye ain't very big, an' ye ain't very old, but ye'll git by. I been a trusteein' fer twenty yer, an' th' teachers air allus skeered worse'n th' youngens. But naiver let on. Jis look 'em all square in th' eye, an' don't say nothin'."
"I'll try to," she answered, thinking that her psychology teacher would have given her much the same advice—after taking the trouble to clothe it in words less readily comprehensible.
"Ye'll git along," he said again. "Don't be high-falutin, an' don't bawl all over creation th' first time th' youngens hanker tu tear th' school house down an' put hit on th' roof." He thrust his shoulders forward and looked down into her eyes. "No need to tell ye not tu bawl, fer ye won't. Ye've got a dawg's eyes—like a smart shepherd dog's—more browner."
"Don't women with dog's eyes cry?"
"I've hearn they don't. My ole woman's got blue eyes, an' she used tu cry when I'd go on a spree—'fore I jined. They say them thet don't cry feels things th' worst. I dunno. But dog's eyes is pretty eyes—kind a sad. Ye're a lookin' thet away now. Don't git skeered an' homesick on th' beginnin'. Frum fer away?"
She could not then answer his question for Superintendent Russell came into the room with a great banging and clattering. "I brought your supplies too, Miss ..."
"Sheridan," she said, and watched in puzzled silence while he placed a shiny zinc pail, a new tin dipper, three erasers, a box of chalk, and a red-handled broom in a pile by her feet.
Jess took his stove pipe and window glass, and reckoned it was time for him to be going. "Better com an' go long home with me," he said.
Louisa and Mr. Russell declined the perfunctory invitation, Ping School being some twenty miles of rough road away, but Jess yet lingered by the screen door, holding it open with one hand while with the other he juggled the window glass and stove pipe. "You got a way a gittin' tu th' bus station?" he asked, after a time of standing with one foot in the door. "My team's hitched clost by thar, an' I'd be glad tu pack ye down."
She wanted very much to go with him. It was not that she had a fear of losing herself in the small hill town, but somehow this man made her feel less lonely and strange. It would be nice starting to that awful place wherever it was, with someone she could talk to. Then too there was the question she wanted to ask him. She hesitated for fear that Mr. Russell was not yet finished with her. She had hoped that he would say something about her work, give her some advice, but so far the only help she had received from him was a few general suggestions given to the body of teachers assembled in the court room yesterday morning. A feeling of panic gripped her when she realized that that would be all, and that her superintendent had no desire to talk with her further. "That's abligin' of you, Jess," he said. "I don't guess she knows where the station is anyway." And as if anxious to be rid of her, he hastily put the chalk, the dipper, and the erasers in the bucket, slung the bucket over the broom handle and handed the whole to Jess.
The tall man put the broom over the shoulder of the arm not burdened with the stove pipe and window glass, and led the way through the half darkness of the court house hall, smelling of dust and overall dye and tobacco, into the hot brilliance of the town's chief thoroughfare. Try as she would, Louisa found herself always about two steps behind him. It both annoyed and amused her to watch the long legs in front of her swinging with such apparent slowness yet covering so much ground in so short a time.
The bus station was indicated by a sun-browned card in the fly-specked window of a restaurant. Jess placed her school supplies on the sidewalk below the window and tarried a moment. Louisa understood that his waiting was not that of a person expecting recompense for a service rendered; rather it took the form of an awkward solicitude. "Long ways frum home?" he asked after a time of moving his hat about.
"Lexington," she said, and wondered how a place one hundred and ten miles away could seem to be on the other side of the world.
"Yer folks live thar?"
"I haven't any folks."
"Ye've got a feller ain't ye?"
"Time ye's a gittin' one. Mebbe one a them moonshiners down Cavecreek way 'ull take ye on. I hear Chris Bledsoe's still out."
"Th' jail house. He killed a sheriff over by Tennessee some time back, an' some say he's a hidin' out with some a his people down in th' Canebrake country," he told her in the same casual fashion he would speak of the weather, and added, "Well, I got tu be gettin' along. Look 'em in th' eye," and moved away.
She caught his sleeve. "There—there was something I wanted to ask you. Back in the court house you said something of—trouble down there. What is it? I'm not afraid—it's just that I would like to know."
He gave her his friendly grin, but his eyes had grown empty, expressionless and veiled as opaque glass. "Pshaw, hit warn't nothin'. I hardly know mysef—jist hearsay. I don't know why I mentioned hit. If 'n hit had a been enything fer ye tu worry about Brick Russell would a told ye."
"Are you sure?" Understanding flooded her. "Is that why I got the job—because the teachers here know—and will not go down there?"
"No-o-o. Mebbe they figger a stranger 'ud do better. Enyway people hardly knows they's sich a place. Hit wuz a long time back, an' fergot now—I reckin."
His words she thought were empty as his eyes. She tried again. "I would go because my job is down there." She smiled at him. "I just thought it would be nice to know a little something about the place before I got there."
"Oh ye'll like hit. Like hit fine." He made his hand into a fist and studied it, taking time to massage each knuckle with his thumb. "Th' only thing," he said after examining each knuckle, "if 'n so much ez two hawgs git intu a fight don't take sides with neither one," and he was gone, swinging away up the street.
Inside the restaurant a tall boy clumsily frying hamburgers for three teamsters in overalls answered all her questions. Yes, there was a bus leaving in half an hour; yes, her supplies would be safe on the sidewalk; sure, he could sell her a ticket to High Rock, but he would have to look up the price first as he hardly ever sold one down there.
She spent the half hour in writing a card to her aunt, and collecting her baggage from the town's one hotel across the street. The ticket cost eighty-six cents, leaving her exactly five dollars and sixty-four cents. And pay day was seven weeks away.
The ride on the hot, crowded bus, smelling of leather and dust and gasoline seemed a long one. She wanted to see Canebrake. What kind of place would she board in, and would it be far from school? Would she have a lot of rough, half-grown boys among her pupils? What had the trouble been? There was one question that troubled her most. Would there by anyone to meet her at High Rock or would she have to find her way alone for sixteen miles of hill country? Would there be houses along the way? Suppose this exconvict and murderer, the Chris Bledsoe the trustee had spoken of, were really down there? Ashamed of her fears she tried to force her mind to other things.
Excerpted from MOUNTAIN PATH by Harriette Simpson Arnow Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Arnow. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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