by Lisa Alther

When she was 96, Hattie Elizabeth Vanover Reed, my paternal grandmother, would put on a stylish silk suit with a skirt to her knees, nylons and two-inch heels, costume jewelry and full-battle make-up whenever visitors were expected at her nursing home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Right to the end, she maintained her standards for a Virginia lady.

I remember my grandmother best presiding over Sunday dinners in the nightclub that she'd bought from a bootlegger and remodeled into her home. An open-air deck, where patrons had once drunk moonshine, ran the length of the living room, overlooking the slow-drifting Holston River, often frothy with waste from the Tennessee Eastman plant upriver. She dug a lily pond in the former parking lot, stocking it with goldfish that soon became bloated from the Saltines we grandchildren crumbled for them. Behind the pond she planted magnolia trees. The first time I stuck my nose into one of those creamy blossoms, I refused to remove it. Seeing what was possible in the realm of scent, I didn't want to breathe ordinary air anymore, especially not the air of our town, which was sticky with fumes from the Mead paper mill.

My grandmother's Sunday dinner was a ritual as inescapable as Sunday school. But my three brothers and I often delayed it by racing to the stone wall that overlooked the valley out back, to count the cars making up a train snaking past down below. The northbound trains, bulging with the trunks of primordial poplars, dribbled chunks of coal down the tracks, whereas the southbound trains flaunted cockscombs of shiny new-model autos.

After the caboose vanished around the bend, my grandfather sometimes teed up by the fish pond and drove his golfball to the ninth green of the course across the river. He watched the ball climb, arc and fall, longing to row the boat tethered by the riverbank across to the far shore to continue his game. He had been a semi-professional left-handed baseball pitcher in his youth, and his golf scores as a senior citizen were in the low 70's.

Instead of plunging down the cliff to freedom, though, my grandfather strolled inside and sat down at the gleaming faux-Sheraton table, backed by wallpaper featuring a mural of hoop-skirted belles flouncing around the portico of a Southern mansion. Wearing a monogrammed silk shirt, he listened in silence as my grandmother regaled my father with the fiery future that awaited those who turned their backs on the Southern Baptist Church in order to attend the Episcopal Church up the street with their misled Yankee brides. Silver platters of fried chicken, shelly beans, Parker House rolls, and molded Jello salad circulated, as my brothers and I disputed the number of tiny silver fruits on the handles of the Francis I flatwear.

My grandparents grew up at the end of the nineteenth century on farms in the coalfields of southwest Virginia. Both were middle children of eight siblings. My grandmother's mother died of pneumonia when my grandmother was thirteen. My grandfather's father died of pneumonia and his mother of gall bladder disease before he was six. He was raised in his older sister's household. Like an episode from Dickens, the relative who served as executor sold off his parents' farm in 1888 and squandered the proceeds. When my grandfather was twelve, he ran away from his sister's, hiking eighty miles across the mountains into Kentucky to join an older brother.

Both my grandparents trained as teachers in Clintwood and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Second cousins, they first met when she became his student. After their marriage she persuaded him to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, a dream no doubt fostered by his watching helplessly as his parents died. He attended the University of Louisville, hopping southbound freight trains to see his wife. The next year he won a scholarship to the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. My grandmother sold cosmetics in a department store, then taught at a reform school for girls, once fighting off some attacking students with her hat pin. During the summers he sold pots door-to-door and worked as a logger. His final year at school he tended Confederate veterans at the Robert E. Lee Soldiers' Home.

Returning to Clintwood, my grandfather kept a stable of six horses to convey him to patients in the remote hollows. He owned the first car in the county, until it lurched out of control and bounced down a mountainside on its hard rubber tires, crashing into a creek.

When my father was five, my grandparents moved to Kingsport, Tennessee, a new town being established in the Holston Valley to accommodate industry from the North seeking non-unionized labor. My grandfather opened the town's first hospital, while my grandmother oversaw construction of a large neo-Georgian house on the street where the Yankee plant managers were building their houses. (She later gave this house to my father upon his return from World War II with his pregnant wife and two small children, of whom I was the younger).

One day my grandmother decided the masons were building a brick wall in the back yard incorrectly, so she took over. As she slapped mortar on a brick, a mason said, "Excuse me, m'am, but you can't build a wall like that." My grandmother looked up at him and said, "Sir, not only can I, I am."

Although my grandmother had enough drive to run several factories, such roles weren't open to women. So she was soon running the social life of Kingsport instead, attending a tea, luncheon, bridge game, or club meeting nearly every day. Her favorite group was the Virginia Club. To belong, one had to have been born in Virginia. At their meetings, the members, whom my grandmother referred to as "those fine Colonial ladies," mused about the superiority of Virginia over Tennessee. It was not unheard of for members to cross the nearby state line when they went into labor so their infants could be born Virginians. By the time I knew her, my grandmother was not just a Virginian, she was a Tidewater Virginian whose Cavalier forebears had received land grants from James I.

Meanwhile, I was being groomed as a Virginia belle (even though I was born in Tennessee), attending cooking classes, sewing classes, and weekly sessions of Charm School at the local department store. I learned to set a table, plan a menu, arrange flowers, dress, walk, sit and make myself up. I also learned to waltz, and when I was sixteen, I was presented as a debutante, wearing a white strapless Scarlett O'Hara gown, with kid gloves to my biceps, which bulged un-bellelike from years of football with the neighborhood boys. My boyfriend Harold and I waltzed in intricate patterns with the other Symphony Belles and their dates to the "The Champagne Waltz". (Then we drove in his father's finned yellow Buick to our favorite parking spot and struggled like the Laocoon to free me from my hoops.)

All my life I have longed to belong to some group, so as to escape the lonely task of self-definition. The closest I ever came was in high school when the Queen Teens invited me to join. Finally I knew who I was: I was a Q.T.. We were said to be more trashy than the Sub Debs or the Devilish Debs, and to give better parties.

This hard-won self-knowledge evaporated, however, when I arrived at college near Boston during the civil rights years. No one up there had ever heard of the Queen Teens, and when they did, they laughed. I was summoned to the Wellesley gym, stripped down to my underwear, and photographed in profile, like a police line-up. Fortunately, the carriage I had learned by strutting around the Kingsport department store with textbooks on my head got me exempted from Remedial Posture. I was conscripted into Fundamentals of Movement, however, in which I learned how to sit down in an MG without flashing too much thigh. I was also given a speech test. Thanks to my Yankee mother's childhood coaching on how to pronounce "cow" in one syllable, I passed. Nevertheless, at dinner one night a hallmate observed, "It's so amusing to hear you say something intelligent in that Southern accent of yours." After the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, a woman from across the hall barged into my room to announce, "You Southerners make me sick!"

I was astonished because, until then, I'd rarely thought of myself as a Southerner. To the contrary, I'd always been teased on the playground because my mother was a Yankee and my pronunciation of "cow" was so weird. And I had assumed that every young woman in America was forced to waltz in hoop skirts. Since East Tennessee is mountainous, it had hosted few plantations or slaves. And when Tennessee seceded from the Union, East Tennessee tried to secede from Tennessee. My father's great grandfather was a sergeant in the Union army. My grandmother's great uncle lost an arm fighting for the Union at the battle of Cranesnest River. Several forebears moved from southwest Virginia to Kentucky to avoid fighting for the Confederacy. To say nothing of my mother's ancestors in New York, or of her lullabies, which included a Union battle hymn called "Sherman's Dashing Yankee Boys".

But it was also true that other forebears fought for the Confederacy, one dying of measles shortly after enlisting in the Virginia Infantry. And Sullivan County, where I lived, had been prepared to secede from East Tennessee if East Tennessee seceded from the Union. As children, my brothers, neighbors and I played War Between the States, giving each other transfusions with lengths of string from bottles of water dyed red with food coloring. Most of us owned gray cardboard Confederate Army caps, and no one wanted to be a Yankee, so this fate usually befell the youngest children.

In sum, I was one baffled college freshman, accepted because my Appalachian origins (of which I was unaware) appealed to the missionary instincts of the admissions committee, but now expected to transform myself into something called "The Wellesley Girl". After a bout of mononucleosis that allowed me to sulk in the infirmary for a month, I decided to sort out my confusion by writing a short story. Little did I know that this in itself marked me as a Southerner. As Flannery O'Connor once wrote, "The Southerner knows he can do more justice to reality by telling a story than he can by discussing problems or proposing abstractions.... It's actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience." But when I had one of my characters say, "Law, honey, where'd you get that hat at?", my writing professor informed me that real people didn't talk that way. This was the first time I'd ever realized that the people I'd grown up among weren't real.

It takes a long time to figure out who you are, and it often takes leaving a place behind to recognize how it has shaped you. As Sarah Orne Jewett wrote Willa Cather, "One must know the world so well before one can know the parish." After college I moved to Vermont and wrote my first novel, KINFLICKS. Predictably, it concerns a young woman who grows up in Tennessee, goes to college near Boston, and moves to Vermont. And during the funk that always follows publication for me, I started wondering why, if my grandmother loved Virginia so much, she'd moved to Tennessee, why she rarely went back, why we hardly ever met our Virginia relatives.

I asked my father. He explained that once when he was visiting kin near Clintwood, his Uncle Cas invited him to go fishing. "Fishing" consisted of sitting on a creek bank all afternoon drinking white lightning. When it was time to go home, Cas lit some sticks of dynamite and tossed them into the water, then collected the fish that landed onshore. When my father told him that was against the law, he said, "Son, over here I am the law." My father also described my grandfather's being chased on horseback by an armed thug for defending a cousin during a knifefight. He packed a .38 Special for several years afterwards. My father speculated that his parents had left southwest Virginia as much to escape the alcoholism and violence, as to try their luck in a new boom town.

The next time I was home, I went to see my grandmother's aunt, Ura Grizzle, who at 103 seemed close to death. She lay in her bed at her daughter's house, eyes closed, face copper against the white pillow, hair pulled back to reveal a broad forehead and high cheekbones, looking like the Cherokee she used to say she was. Discovering it was unfashionable to be Indian, she later denied it. I, however, was from a generation for whom ethnicity of any sort seemed exotic, so I asked about her Cherokee forebears. Even though her daughter assured me she was awake, her eyes and lips remained shut.

Next I went to southwest Virginia on my own, driving in two hours a distance that used to take my grandparents twelve. I could tell this trip upset my grandmother, but she said nothing. She felt well-bred people should communicate like bats, via ultrasonic squeaks. I was eating lunch at a cafeteria in Clintwood when the participants in a trial at the nearby courthouse came in. The waitress told me that a couple had had a son who was a high school football star. He ran into a goalpost, broke his neck, and was buried in the local churchyard. Now his parents were divorcing, and his mother was moving fifty miles away. Wanting to take her son along, she was suing for custody. As I buttered my cornbread, I first understood the origins of the black humor that had recently made KINFLICKS successful. It was a regional trait, I realized, based on the assumption that human behavior is so bizarre that the only recourse is to laugh.

Later I returned to East Tennessee to research an article on snakehandling for the NEW YORK TIMES. My doctor father used to tell us at the dinner table about snakehandlers who turned up in the emergency room. Some died and some didn't. What I found in the backwoods frame churches were farmers, truck drivers, car mechanics -- people for whom the fondling of copperheads was their only excitement. The famous mountain feuds, over such issues as who left the gate open so the hogs got out, had entertained their forebears similarly. Might it have also been rural monotony that propelled my grandparents out of southwest Virginia, I wondered. At this point my Appalachian relatives began to become real to me, despite my writing professor's assurances that they weren't. Because I had grown up in an industrial town in a river valley surrounded by amiable carpetbaggers rather than in a mountain cove, I had failed to grasp the fact that I, too, was Appalachian. For the first time, I began to ponder the caricatures in the funny papers and on television -- L'il Abner, Snuffy Smith, Hee Haw, the Beverley Hillbillies, the Waltons. The Waltons evoked nostalgia, the others, contemptuous amusement. Yet, beneath surface differences, the Appalachians I knew were similar to the Bostonians and Vermonters I'd kept company with since leaving home. The language of the heart, it seemed to me, was universal. At least that had always been the guiding impulse behind my writing.

Still reflecting upon why the rest of the nation would need to view Appalachians as quaint or venal hillbillies, I moved to England. The Vietnam War was just ending, and many of my British friends were leftists, so I received frequent lectures on American imperialism, for which I was apparently a running dog. I was bewildered because I had never thought of myself as an American. I was just getting used to myself as a Southerner and an Appalachian.

As usual, I plunged into a novel as a way to organize my confusion. The question I posed was why, if you have several people coming of age in the same environment, do some leave and others stay. Why did certain fish decide to crawl out on dry land? Why, in other words, did my grandparents leave Virginia? And why did I leave the Tennessee river valley they bequeathed me? The resulting novel, ORIGINAL SINS, features five characters growing up in a small East Tennessee town. Three leave and two stay. After 592 pages, I came to the banal conclusion that the ones who left did so because they didn't fit in. Applying to my story the Marxist analysis I'd absorbed from my left-wing British friends, I further understood that other Americans needed to see Appalachians as ignorant hillbillies in order not to feel guilty for having plundered our timber and coal, wrecked our environment, and exploited our labor. Victors always portray the vanquished in unflattering terms in order to rationalize their own brutality. At the same time, it occurred to me that perhaps their guilt wasn't really necessary, since the forebears of most Appalachians stole their land from the Cherokees, the Cherokees having stolen it from the Copena, the Copena from the Hopewells, the Hopewells from the Mound Builders, and so on back to the dawn of our greedy species.

Tired of being attacked in London for being an American when I was attacked in Boston for not being one, I returned to Vermont to lick my ethnic wounds and write my third novel. OTHER WOMEN concerns the interaction between a therapist and her client, a lesbian mother and nurse who is trying to comprehend the violence in the world. Since therapy was nearly as popular as polio when I was growing up in Tennessee, I suspected after publication that I had now disqualified myself as both a Southerner and an Appalachian. To make matters worse, Southern and Appalachian women were known for standing by their men, single-handedly harvesting crops and raising children, sewing dresses from flour sacks and planting petunias in diesel tires, even as their men drank, caroused, and knocked them senseless. I had seen the "accidents" resulting from this ethos several times while working at the hospital as a Candy Striper during high school. By writing about a woman who preferred to stand by another woman, one who treated her with tenderness, it was likely that I had now doubly disqualified myself from my natal groups.

During my subsequent creative drought, I first began to suspect that, in my northward flight toward freedom, I hadn't really left home. The Vermont house I was living in was a brick Georgian identical to the one my grandmother had constructed in Kingsport in1926, except that mine was built in 1803. The foothills around me were similar to those I had roamed as a child. Vermonters, although more reticent than East Tennesseeans, had the same droll affability. Some had the same unfortunate tendency to assault their women when they were having a bad day. The accent was different, but the grammar "mistakes" were the same. I could just as easily hear "I ain't never seen nobody like you" in Vermont as in Tennessee.

Vermont, I realized, was merely the northern end of the Appalachians, which was why I felt so much at home. The entire mountain range had been settled by Anglo-Saxons and Celts. The ballads, clogging, speech patterns, black humor, and Calvinism were nearly identical all along its length, apart from local variations based on contributions from different ethnic groups, particularly the Cherokees in the south and the French Canadians in Vermont. Modern civilization had disrupted this mountain culture in the mid-Atlantic states, but it still existed at either extremity. To paraphrase Pogo, I had met the enemy, and they were us. In the grip of this insight, I wrote my fourth novel, BEDROCK, which features a Vermont village full of eccentrics, composites of people and situations I had known in both Tennessee and Vermont. And although I had lived in Vermont for twenty-five years by then and had several eighteenth-century ancestors buried in the Rockingham, Vermont, churchyard, a Boston reviewer maintained I had no right to satirize Vermonters since I was a Southerner.

Having finally recognized, accepted and stitched the Appalachian patch into the crazy quilt of myself, imagine my dismay as I was reading a book by a self-professed Melungeon and realized that he was a third cousin I'd never met. The Melungeons are a group of some 20,000 people living in the region where East Tennessee, southwest Virginia, southeastern Kentucky, and northwestern North Carolina join. Several hundred thousand people outside this area are thought to have Melungeon ancestry without knowing it. The first Anglo-Saxon settlers to arrive, in the last half of the eighteenth century, found the olive-skinned ancestors of present-day Melungeons already living there, in European-style houses.

When I was a child, babysitters used to threaten us with abduction by six-fingered Melungeons who reputedly lived in trees on the ridges ringing town. Although Melungeons always maintained that they were Portuguese, researchers claimed they were "tri-racial isolates", resulting from intermarriage among Native Americans, escaped slaves and mountain whites. Considered "free persons of color", they were pushed off their land, denied the vote, and prohibited from marrying whites or attending their schools.

Recent genetic, cross-cultural, linguistic, historical and medical evidence reported in my new-found cousin's book suggest that they may, in fact, be partly Portuguese and Turkish. Some maintain that their progenitors were explorers, missionaries, colonists and soldiers from several Spanish towns and forts known to have existed in the southeast in the late sixteenth century, in addition to several hundred Turkish sailors believed to have been dumped on the Carolina coast after a failed attempt to establish a colony in Cuba. Some historians have proposed that these groups may have merged with each other and with Native American tribes over several generations, gradually being forced onto inaccessible mountain ridges by the Anglo-Saxon settlers, who were intolerant of their darker skins and covetous of their rich bottomland. If my cousin's calculations are valid, each of my grandparents would have been about a quarter Melungeon. Was this the missing link, I wondered. Whether "tri-racial isolates" or Portuguese-Turkish-Native American hybrids, might my grandparents have left Virginia because they were targets for discrimination? Did they want a fresh start among people who didn't know them? Could this be why my grandmother was so uncommunicative about her relatives?

These new speculations sent me into a frenzy of family research, which I won't detail since people's genealogies are almost as tedious as their vacation slides. Suffice it to say that I was succumbing to a family obsession. My mother's grandmother was national genealogist for the D.A.R. and documented eleven lines of her family that came to America from England before 1650. Another Virginia cousin has published a book trailing one branch of my grandmother's family, the Vanovers, back to seventeenth-century Holland.

I would be inclined now to agree with the adage, "Ignorance is bliss." I soon discovered that both sides of my family have been in this country for twelve generations, the Cherokees and perhaps the Melungeons for longer. Yet I had studied Buddhism, and all I wanted was to be here now. What was I to do with all these snarled roots? It seemed I was English, Scottish, Irish, Scots-Irish, French, Alsatian, German, Dutch, and Cherokee. If my Melungeon cousin was correct about our shared ancestors, I was also whatever mix that that entailed. My ancestors' faiths had been Primitive Baptist, Huguenot, Dunkard, Church of England, Congregational, Puritan, Dutch Reformed, Jewish. The men had been soldiers, sailors, privateers, carpenters, paupers, coopers, weavers, syphilitics, millers, preachers, drug addicts, tavern keepers, suicides, farmers, doctors, debtors, coal miners, lawyers, draft dodgers, teachers. Except for a couple of suffragists , a midwife, and a breeder of championship chickens, the women died leaving no trace but their children. Despite my heroic efforts at self-definition, I now knew that my genes constituted their own private Balkans. I felt deep nostalgia for the days when I had been a Queen Teen and identity had seemed a simple issue of not being a Sub Deb or a Devilish Deb.

My fifth novel, FIVE MINUTES IN HEAVEN, became an attempt to unite these scattered beads of mercury -- urban and rural, northern and Southern and Appalachian, American and European. My main character grows up in East Tennessee, lives in New York City as a young woman, then moves to Paris. Experiencing these cultural differences, she comes to understand that love in its highest sense is the only force that can override the conflicts and violence that such surface variations incite. A couple of reviewers demanded to know why an American would want to write about France. At the moment I am in the process of establishing my United Nations within. As my model, I have selected that early Appalachian existentialist, Hattie Elizabeth Vanover Reed. Almost everything I know about creating fiction is a legacy from her. Faced with the void, or with a reality too grim or too complicated to endure, she simply decided that she was a Tidewater lady, and then turned herself into one. After she finished the brick wall behind her Georgian house (a wall still intact after seventy-five years), the architect stopped by to admire it. She replied, "Why, thank you, sir. I know that my wall will stand, because I have studied Thomas Jefferson's walls at the University of Virginia."

-from BLOOD ROOT: REFLECTIONS ON PLACE BY APPALACHIAN WOMEN WRITERS, ed. Joyce Dyer (University of Kentucky Press, 1998)

- Essays
- Interviews
- Guide

Web Exclusives