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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

(Guest Post) Life in Appalachia: Then vs Now by Michelle Shocklee | Author of Appalachian Song

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I'm excited to share this guest post by Michelle Shocklee, author of Appalachian Song. Hope you enjoy!

Life in Appalachia: Then vs Now 
By Michelle Shocklee

The Appalachian Mountains stretch from Canada to Georgia, covering 14 states, and the people of Appalachia are as unique as the mountains themselves. Because there are different regions throughout the Appalachians, sometimes within the same state, residents have their own customs, lifestyles, and even their own way to pronounce the name of their beloved mountain range. 

I first laid eyes on the Great Smoky Mountains of Appalachia in the fall of 2018. As a Rocky Mountain girl, born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we planned a trip to Gatlinburg after moving to Tennessee the previous year. To me, there is nothing more beautiful than a rugged mountain covered in the autumn gold of turning aspen trees. The Smokies, I found, are very different from the craggy, snow-topped Rockies, so I was a little surprised at how quickly I fell in love with them. Rolling layers of breathtaking beauty is the simplest way to describe them. 

The name Smoky Mountains is a little deceiving. The “smoke” is actually a mist, or fog, caused by dense vegetation emitting chemicals into the atmosphere. These chemicals form vapors at normal temperatures, which is why the mountains look smoky year round. Native Americans called the region home for generations before European settlers arrived in the mid-eighteenth century. 

By the 1800s, this part of Appalachia—pronounced “apple-at-cha”—was home to thousands of pioneering families like the Walkers, who inspired the fictional Jenkins family in my new book Appalachian Song. The Walkers were proud mountain people, living by “ax, gun, and plow.” During the Civil War, John Walker fought for the Union Army, as did most East Tennesseans, and was even captured and held prisoner. After the war ended, John married his sweetheart, Margaret Jane King, whose family came from Little Greenbrier, an area near present-day Gatlinburg. He purchased property from Margaret's father, including a single-room cabin, the original section built in the 1840s. Margaret gave birth to eleven children—seven girls and four boys—and all eleven survived into adulthood, a feat not many mountain families could boast back in those days. Poverty and lack of education were two of the biggest issues mountain people faced then and continue to deal with now. But many families, like the Walkers, did their best to overcome them. 

Like most mountain people, the Walkers did without modern conveniences, such as electricity, indoor plumbing, and heavy farm equipment. They grew corn, raised sheep, cattle, chickens, and hogs, had a vast orchard, and tended a huge garden, canning produce that added to their simple diet throughout the year. They sheared sheep, carded, and spun the wool, turning it into clothing for the entire family. They even made their own shoes. One of the Walker sisters is famously quoted as saying, “Our land produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.” Trips into town were few and far between. 

Margaret Walker’s mother was a midwife, and she trained her daughter in midwifery. Bertie Jenkins, one of the main characters in Appalachian Song, is also a midwife. Midwives were a vital part of every mountain community. Not only did they attend births, but they were also knowledgeable of herbal remedies, able to set bones, and perform dental services. With city doctors and hospitals too far away for most mountain people to travel to—and untrustworthy to many residents—the local midwife was often called upon in an emergency. 

Life in Appalachia remained unchanged for decades. For the Walkers and their mountain neighbors, however, their world was turned upside down when the government decided to create a national park. 

The states of Tennessee and North Carolina were given permission by Congress to purchase nearly a half million acres for the park, most of which was privately owned. Land acquired from families and timber companies alike were bargained and haggled over, with many people forced to sell property that had been in their families for generations. Residents of communities like Cades Cove were threatened with annexation if they didn’t comply, leaving them without legal recourse. Refusing to hand over their 122-acre mountain home, the Walkers held out until 1940. Once the park was officially dedicated, they struck a deal with the government: they would receive $4,750 for their farm, with the stipulation the remaining five sisters could live out their days in their home. Yet because they now resided within the borders of a national park, they were unable to farm, raise livestock, or hunt. The old way of life that had been passed down from their father and from his father before, was gone. 

Today, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the United States, with over 14 million visitors annually. The weathered, two-room cabin the Walker family lived in until 1966 is one of the few remaining homesteads. The corncrib and springhouse John Walker built in the 1870s are also there, but the forest has forever changed the landscape into a wooded hideaway that more than likely resembles what the Walker ancestors encountered when they first beheld the land.  

As I researched life in Appalachia, I was pleased to learn that many modern-day residents stubbornly (or perhaps, wisely) cling to the old ways. Should you venture off the beaten path, you may discover a home without electricity and indoor plumbing, where people continue to work on the land, much like the Walkers did all those years ago. Poverty and unemployment remain constant problems for some families throughout Appalachia, but faith and family values are as strong as ever in most communities. Although Appalachian Song is not based on the lives of the Walker family, I hope I captured the essence of the fascinating life they lived on their mountain homestead. 

While I’m still a Rocky Mountain girl at heart, I can now hear the Appalachians calling too. 

I think it’s time to answer.

Tyndale House Publishers (October 3, 2023)
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1496472441
About the book:
Forever within the memories of my heart.
Always remember, you are perfectly loved.

Bertie Jenkins has spent forty years serving as a midwife for her community in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Out of all the mothers she’s tended, none affects her more than the young teenager who shows up on her doorstep, injured, afraid, and expecting, one warm June day in 1943. As Bertie and her four sisters tenderly nurture Songbird back to health, the bond between the childless midwife and the motherless teen grows strong. But soon Songbird is forced to make a heartbreaking decision that will tear this little family apart.

Thirty years later, the day after his father’s funeral, Walker Wylie is stunned to learn he was adopted as an infant. The famous country singer enlists the help of adoption advocate Reese Chandler in the hopes of learning why he was abandoned by his birth parents. With the only clue he has in hand, Walker and Reese head deep into the Appalachian Mountains to track down Bertie Jenkins, the midwife who holds the secrets to Walker’s past.

For fans of historical and Southern fiction comes a poignant story of love and sacrifice set in the heart of Appalachia, from award-winning author Michelle Shocklee.
  • Full-length Christian historical fiction
  • Standalone novel
  • Book length: approximately 94,000 words
  • Includes discussion questions for book groups

Find the book on:
Amazon (aff link), Goodreads


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Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. ~ Philippians 4:8

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