Recently a book club that read only academic nonfiction of the best quality read Ghost On Black Mountain as their monthly book. This was their attempt to step into a new genre. Boy, I was already in trouble. My books have ghosts and the main characters are mountain people from Appalachia. Folklore abounds. How could that compare to academia? It is common knowledge that my family came from humble origins, Appalachian Mountains. I was doomed.
Inas Hawkins, my grandmother, was removed from school in the fifth grade and never returned. When she left the mountains for Atlanta during the Great Depression, she was a widow with a child of five, my mother. At twenty-eight she had to find a way to support her small family under intolerable economic conditions. And everyone knew if it was hard all over the country; it was worse in Appalachia.
Just north of Atlanta, a kindhearted stranger offered Granny a single, rent-free room for as long as she needed. But Granny knew the clock was ticking, and it wouldn’t take long to “wear out her welcome.” Jobs were nonexistent, especially for a woman with a fifth grade education. She took in sewing, babysat, and cleaned houses. In her spare time, she read anything she managed to find. Sometimes it was a week old newspaper left on the Woolworth lunch counter, but still she read. If she didn’t understand a word, she asked someone for the meaning. She couldn’t afford to be proud.
When World War II began, Granny landed a job at Bell Bomber, now known as Lockheed Martin. Yes, she became a “Rosie the Riveter,” making more money than she ever knew existed. Her and my mother’s lives became stable, comfortable when compared to living in the mountains. Granny didn’t take long to enjoy her new success. There were problems such as daycare. She had an arrangement with a neighbor until she found out the woman was not feeding my mother and spending the food money Granny provided on her own family’s needs.
Mother was almost five when Granny began leaving her alone in their room in the big double bed so she could work her shift. She would warn my mother not to get up or make any noise. Before Granny left, she always told Mother one of the old stories that had been told to her when she was young. Then she gave her a pair of shears and a Sears & Roebuck catalog with instructions to cut out pictures that went with the story. This small girl would entertain herself until Granny returned home some eight hours, sometimes twelve hours, later. Imagine. I have a hard time leaving my fifteen-year-old alone for a long period.
When mother began school, Granny begged a friend’s husband to buy her a house on “time.” In those days, women could only purchase a house with cash. A mortgage had to be in a man’s name. Ironically, Granny made more money a year than this man. Each week she paid a house payment from her check. She swore she would never be homeless again. In the meantime, she went to Mother’s school and asked to borrow more advanced math books, which she used to educate herself. She was preparing for the change to come. The war would end. The men would come home. Granny would need a new job.
Within a month of losing her job at Bell Bomber, Granny went to work as a Rich’s girl at Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. Soon she moved into management. This required her to balance the books for two departments. No one knew she had begun her life in the mountains or that she barely had an education.
What I remember about my time with Granny was her ability to spin a captivating tale. As a thirty-five-year-old woman, I spent her last days on earth listening to her tell stories. My most poignant memory happened the year I turned ten. I had come to live with her in Georgia after spending my elementary school years in Germany. The year was 1967, and I was sure my father had landed us on a new planet when we came to Atlanta. My only safe place was books. I read everything.
One afternoon Granny met me at the door with homemade pound cake and a book. “You’ll love this one, Annie. It is my favorite.” She handed me a paperback copy of Jane Eyre. This gave birth to my fiction-writing destiny.
The book club members explained how well I told my protagonist’s story in Ghost On Black Mountain. My foreshadowing was near perfect. The setting was like a living character. They explained how a novel set in Appalachia with mountain characters would have never appealed to them in ordinary circumstances. And they came to complete agreement that I was first and foremost a storyteller.
The part of me that worried over my ability to write beautifully intricate prose balked at this description. I always react this way because Granny drilled into me to reach higher standards than she did, be better. A storyteller came a dime a dozen in my family. What was special about that? Couldn’t the book club members say I was a brilliant writer of sentences? I wanted to be more than a storyteller.
But at that moment I thought of how at ten I devoured Jane Eyre, how Charlotte Bronte must have fought to be taken seriously in her day, how she was an extraordinary storyteller. I thought of how Granny gave me permission on that long-ago afternoon to suspend reality and create a new one.
I looked at the group and smiled. “Thank you so much. I come from a long line of expert storytellers, and I know each one of them would be proud.
Ann Hite is the author of two novels and a novella. Her debut novel, Ghost On Black Mountain, became a Townsend Prize Finalist and won Georgia Author of the Year in 2012. Her new novel, Where The Souls Go, will be released by Mercer University Press in the summer of 2015. Ann is an active board member of the Georgia Writers Association. She lives in Marietta, Georgia.