By Lynn Salsi
University of Tennessee Press
Reviewed by Keith Jones
Those who are not students of Appalachian history or folklore would likely not pick this book up. They would be missing out on something special…
From the start this is not just another dry non-fiction about what life was like up in “them thar hills!” Rather it is an experience of seeing life in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina through the eyes of one of its preeminent story tellers. Prepare to be transported to the parlor of the Hicks home to sit on the simple wood floor and warm yourself before the woodstove as you listen to Ray spin the greatest yarn of all for you; the one of his own life. You will climb the mountains, learn to make do with what is available and yes, you will sit on his grandfather’s lap and learn the great stories that had been handed down through the generations. In short, in a few pages you will look up and realize that the mountains have just been delivered to your living room.
In the first few pages you see a barely grown Ray standing at the top of a ridge. On one side lies the rest of the world, with all of its opportunity and advantages, along with its faster pace and accompanying rat race. Ray has reached that point so many others had; he planned to leave the hills and go forth to put his mark on the world. Leave the poverty and hardscrabble existence he had always known behind and make his fortune. He looked back to where his mother stood at the foot of the other side of the ridge. There he saw the love, warmth and acceptance of everything he had always known in that simple way of life. Summed up neatly; there he saw home. So Ray turned around and went back.
Ray never made a fortune, but he did place his mark on the world, in fact the world often showed up at his front door begging for it. For those not familiar, Ray Hicks was known the world over as the last great Appalachian story teller; the keeper of the Jack Tales. The stories Ray kept alive have obvious common roots with other Anglo-Celtic stories usually involving a boy named “Jack,” such as “Jack in the Beanstalk.” These stories are ancient tales of a poor boy on fantastic adventures using his greatest resource to save the day—that resource, of course, being his sharp mind and vast ingenuity. In each culture these tales have grown and adapted with countless retellings to take on their own special flavors. This is quite true of the Appalachian Jack Tales that Ray Hicks became renowned for. References to these Jack Tales are peppered throughout this book.
Along this journey through Ray’s life he shares many interesting tidbits and humorous stories. From Appalachian medicine to making dulcimers and banjos out of trees and animal hides. The secret, according to Ray, is picking the right tree – you have to thump the tree to see if it resonates. You stroll along as Ray’s father, Nathan, goes on a wild hunt for a drunken bear. Witness Ray encounter a witch on a dark mountainside late one night while he and his father are out picking “galack” leaves to sell to florists so his mother will have money to buy some cooking supplies. Finally—like with most great journeys—you end up where you began, on the ridge overlooking the house where Ray spent his life. Ray, no longer able to walk to the top as he had so many times, allows his son to drive him up in his four wheel drive. There he looks down and recalls the times he has spent there and the people he shared them with. Some were joyful and some were sad, but you will have no doubt they were hard times in a life well lived. You will set the book down feeling as if you have traveled Old Mountain Road beside the Hicks home for a lifetime, along with Ray.
This book is a biography told in the manner of an auto-biography; first person through the eyes of the man whose life is being shared. Author Lynn Salsi excels in this format and takes what could have been mundane biography and turns it into an experience of sight, sound and smell. She has knocked this one out of the park. You will walk away feeling you knew Ray Hicks and lived his life with him.
Whether you are an avid Appalachian scholar or your only experience with the mountains is from the side of a ski slope, you are bound to find the experience of life through the eyes of one who lived and loved the mountains and never really wished to be elsewhere to be a treasure worth keeping.