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August's Book
Slender Is the Thread
by Harry Caudill

Bill:
Let’s travel to Eastern Kentucky as Whitesburg native Harry Caudill tells us tales of Letcher County and Appalachia in Slender Is the Thread. Caudill’s gallery of country lawyers, politicians, and just plain old characters should renew your interest in Kentucky’s oral tradition of storytelling and leave you spinning a yarn or two yourself. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Yeah. We were just talking about this oral tradition in storytelling and the title of the book and all of that, and whether or not these stories can still be told today by characters. You mentioned that there were—well, you didn’t actually say that there were these kind of characters in Danville. In fact, that was a reference to something else.

Wilma:
Oh, no, I didn’t.

Bill:
But there probably are.

Wilma:
I did not say that at all. No. I really didn’t say that. I was interested, though, in the storytelling technique; and I was also interested that this book was published in 1987, because it seems sometimes too late in history for the stories he is telling. Of course, he is telling things from way back, but then ... Slender Is the Thread is a good example of the local-color or regional story—and we had this with Aunt Jane of Kentucky

Lynda:
Yes.

Wilma:
... where you have eccentric characters and dialect and the homespun telling of the story, told with some humor and sometimes with some sentimentality. So I think there is a great tradition here in the writing down of these stories, because it does sound as if they have been told, and I believe they were mouth-to-mouth at one point. Then Harry Caudill has seen fit to write down these, either from his own experience or from things that he’s heard.

Gabrielle:
And the book is almost like a lot of short stories. I thought legal kind of courtroom drama was going to be a theme in every chapter, and it really wasn’t.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Dava:
It just seems he has written down things he can recall from his past. Sometimes, you know, the story culminates in him telling what happened in a courtroom, and then sometimes it is just a story, like the story of the man who got caught in the fall of the mine.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Dava:
The rock fall.

[Everyone agrees]

Dava:
He just ends the story with how he gets out and doesn’t really go into the whole detail of the trial, which was supposed to be a landmark case.

Lynda:
You are right. They are just colorful characters.

Dava:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
Yeah.

Wilma:
I loved the coal mining story that Dava was talking about. It wasn’t one of the more quaint stories; it was just kind of a horrifying story of what did happen, or does happen, in the coal mines. Also, I was pretty astounded at the beginning of that story concerning some of the statistics about coal mining: “In Harlan County alone between 1912 and 1986, 1,200 miners died in the mines.” I mean, that just is an amazing thing to me.

Gabrielle:
And wasn’t there something that if you lined up everyone that had passed away from a death related to coal mining, it would take you two and a half hours before you passed the last person?

Wilma:
If you were going 60 miles an hour in a car.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Bill:
And if I’m not mistaken, in 2001 we just had our first death [of the year] in a coal mining accident, so there have been improvements along the way. But again, I am sort of fascinated about whether these stories can be told today about characters that are still in that region. I think he did—he refers to his father a great deal—get a lot of the stories from his father and from people that his father knew and some of the famous politicians. So they were ... they are sort of handed down in this oral tradition.

Wilma:
One thing ... Go ahead, Lynda.

Lynda:
I thought it was interesting that so many of the stories focused on Whitesburg. Well, of course that was his home base ...

Bill:
Letcher County.

Lynda:
[laughing] ... but I tell you, it made me think that there were a lot of colorful characters—an unusual amount of colorful characters—in that neck of the woods.

Dava:
The thing about this book is, he writes about things that were his own experiences; but the thing is, like, it seems kind of far-fetched to the reader who is not familiar with the region, the people, but that’s how people are. People are really that interesting, really that colorful. To begin with, I can think ... Even now, I can think of so many characters back home who remind me exactly of these people I read about. And it’s really a lot of fun if you get to thinking about it: There are a lot of folks that are like that.

Bill:
As you were growing up, were there stories told about characters in Inez or in the county?

Dava:
I grew up in a very political family, at least on the local level, so I heard stories all the time, but just as interesting.

Bill:
Well, I guess the question before we get into some of the details would be: Is this a book that could be written about Western Kentucky or the Purchase or Southcentral Kentucky?

Wilma:
Well, one thing—and if I had a problem with the book, this would have been it. I am very, very conscious about the status of Kentucky [laughs] and ...

Bill:
Sure.

Wilma:
... in the rest of the United States. And, of course, we are very stereotyped, I think, sometimes. Certainly when he was telling stories of the 1920s or ’30s, I thought, “Yeah, that’s the way it used to be.” But I had a problem when he generalized about Kentucky and used the present tense because, if this were published in 1987, he is essentially talking about our times. For instance, here’s one:

[Reads]

“In Kentucky, elections are only as honest as circumstances require. Even when balloting has been fair and square, the count is often rigged. Many a slip occurs between the closing of the polls and the official certifying of the result.”

Now, he is indicating here that this is happening today. It’s a generalization, and that bothers me a bit. Maybe this is true in certain areas, but I just have a problem with the generalization.

Lynda:
Well, does it bother you that he’s reporting it without any ... reporting it dispassionately, or would you prefer that he moralized about it and said this is a terrible thing?

Wilma:
Oh, no, that’s not it at all. I’m just wondering if it is a true statement. No, he doesn’t have to moralize about it at all, but we generally do have, in my memory, voting machines in Kentucky—and that’s a long time. And maybe not in every place in Kentucky, but even in high school we practiced on voting machines, not putting votes in the ballot boxes. And since I have been voting, certainly, it’s been by machine, so I don’t know how ... And I know machines can be rigged, too. I’m not saying that that can’t happen, but I don’t know how. This just seems so generalized, you know: “In Kentucky, elections are only as honest as circumstances require.”

Bill:
So you are saying that maybe there’s a bit of—and I don’t mean to be too harsh here—dishonesty in what he’s saying?

Lynda:
Overgeneralizing.

Wilma:
Overgeneralizing.

Bill:
Yeah, that’s better.

Wilma:
I don’t mean that he’s being dishonest or anything, but he is overgeneralizing. Maybe that’s been his experience in specific places or specific times. That’s just one thing, and it’s not only the voting.

Lynda:
I think it’s smart for us to keep a jaded eye when it comes to elections these days.

Bill:
Who’s watching the watchdog?

Lynda:
Right.

Bill:
Dava, you were going to say something about that, too.

Dava:
Well, I think he just means that politics in general, on a local scale, can be a very shady business, especially when you get into small areas. I think it’s like this everywhere across the nation—not just in Kentucky—if you have a really small, rural area where everybody knows everybody. I mean, it’s human nature to get up in everybody’s business, you know? So it doesn’t matter where you are. It just so happens in Kentucky we have a lot of small counties, 120 counties—you know, tiny places. Sparse population.

Gabrielle:
Do you think they are still selling votes?

Dava:
Oh, sure.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
Oh, sure.

Lynda:
You can say that and laugh about it, though. That’s the tone of the book: to tell these stories in a humorous tone of voice.

Wilma:
Maybe if he had said, “In the United States this is going on” or something ... But it’s so specific about Kentucky.

Dava:
Yeah, that’s true.

Wilma:
I mean, even in his beginning he talks about Kentucky as being a place of ... Oh here, in fact I have a quote: “Weak government, self-help, quick wrath, and long memories” are the people of Kentucky.

Bill:
[Laughs]

Wilma:
And in one other place he generalizes about lawyers. He says: “Rare is the lawyer who has not entertained political ambitions or more likely ventured into the political waters in the hope of securing legal fees to be dispensed by his cronies. Most lawyers come from political families and have heard much talk of elections and political spoils,” which in my experience ... I know a number of lawyers, and actually that would be true of very few of them. I mean, seriously, I’m telling the truth. So I think again it’s an overgeneralization about “Rare is the lawyer who has not entertained political ambitions.”

Bill:
Well, it has been written in some of the reviews that when this book came out in 1987, some critics did attack its honesty or maybe its fact finding to a degree. But then I think it goes on to say that when they further looked into that, they really didn’t disprove a lot that was going on. Maybe a lot of these stories handed down in sort of a general way were accepted as fact, and that’s the way they were told.

Wilma:
I’m not worried about the stories.

Bill:
You are concerned about the stereotypes.

Wilma:
I am concerned about the stereotypes and the overgeneralizations. Now, a specific story—if that story is augmented a bit with a little more detail than might have been there, that is the sign of a good storyteller. So I don’t have a problem with the stories, exactly. It’s when he comes in and editorializes about “You see, this story proves that all lawyers ,” etc., or all elections are rigged or whatever. It irritated me somehow as a Kentuckian.

Bill:
What do we know about Harry Caudill that may or may not help you read just this book—which was one of his last books—published in ’87.

Lynda:
Well, I know as I read through the book, I felt that there was more to the stories that he wasn’t saying. And particularly it was more about himself that he doesn’t say in this book that I wanted to know. And since he is so well known for Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I went to the library and got this book out so I could read it. I know that this book was pivotal in the ’60s in the War on Poverty effort that came about, and so I wanted to read it. As you can see, it’s a much larger book, and there is more of the same in here. If you’re talking about the stereotypical image of Kentucky, then that’s what you find in here. But he goes into a lot of detail about the reason why, where in [Slender Is the Thread], he just skims over the frontier people who settled in Kentucky and what they brought to the region—or what they didn’t bring to the region, in some cases. Here he goes into great detail and builds his case much more solidly.

Bill:
We don’t often promote another book that we are not reading on the bookclub, but I think in this case I’m going to do the same thing Lynda is: Go back and read this. If you don’t mind, just very briefly, the exercise that we took the other day ... either that paragraph or the back of the book there where it describes Appalachia and where we are, where it was ...

Lynda:
Just this part in here, I thought, was quite telling in summary of all the things that he has mentioned. In terms of the background of the frontiersmen, he says:

“Consider, then, these forces in synopsis: The illiterate son of illiterate ancestors, cast loose in an immense wilderness without basic mechanical or agricultural skills, without the refining, comforting and disciplining influence of an organized religious order, in a vast land wholly unrestrained by social organization or effective laws, compelled to acquire skills quickly in order to survive, and with a Stone Age savage as his principal teacher. From these forces emerged the mountaineer as he is, to an astonishing degree, even to this day.”

And if there is one real fault in here, it’s his description of Native Americans.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Lynda:
Although I think that—to compare to the way he described African Americans in Slender Is the Thread—he tells, he talks about both of these minority groups in a way that I imagine is true to the region. I mean, he’s not politically correct, I should say, in any way. He just lays it out there.

Bill:
And quite honestly, you would think in ’87 he would have had a tendency to be a little bit more politically correct ...

Lynda:
Actually, he gives the same rough treatment ...

Bill:
... in ’87 than he was in ’60.

Lynda:
... to ...

Bill:
Native Americans.

Lynda:
Europeans.

Bill:
Or the Europeans, sure.

Lynda:
You know, he calls himself “just laying bare the facts,” and in Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he really goes on quite a rant talking about why the area is depressed—and not only because the settlers brought so little, but then the coal companies came in and ravaged the land and left nothing behind—and it’s quite a compelling story.

Bill:
So this fascination with Eastern Kentucky that it seems like we all have ...

[Everyone laughs]

Wilma:
See, I think that’s what it was: the timing of this book in 1987, and some of the things he might have still been saying, when in 1963 ... If I’d read Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I would have gone, “Yeah, it’s 1963.” [But] we have been through so much and had so much more social awareness since that time.

Lynda:
But I just think that’s his style.

Wilma:
It is, but I can be irritated by it, can’t I?

[Everyone laughs]

Lynda:
I want to talk about the stories themselves.

Bill:
Yeah.

Dava:
Right.

Lynda:
I mean, they make you want to curl up, and I mean I just get ... you just get immersed in the book, because I almost want to hear his voice ...

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Lynda:
... as I read the stories. But lacking that, I just wanted to get lost in the stories, because he paints these really detailed pictures of the people in the stories.

Gabrielle:
I wanted more. I wanted for him to take each of the small chapters and really expand it and give me some more detail. So it left me hungry for—wanting more detail.

Wilma:
And he covered several stories in the same chapter, too, sometimes.

Lynda:
Yeah, sometimes.

Wilma:
And you wanted to go on with ...

Lynda:
Right.

Wilma:
... in that chapter with the same story. One of my favorites being the young man—Doc Wright, I think it was—who found a young woman that he admired, and she invited him to her parents’ house at night.

Lynda:
Oh, yes, yes.

Wilma:
And he left his shoes. He left his good shoes behind on his way trying to get away from ...

Lynda:
On the fencepost.

Wilma:
... the father. On the fencepost. I thought it was very funny, and I thought the story was very good. And then the father was wearing them later and thought someone, some wonderful person, benevolent person ...

Lynda:
Someone who really liked him.

Wilma:
... really liked him had left some new shoes for him!

Dava:
I really liked the very first story, about the surgeon who comes and gets the young lawyer ...

Wilma:
Oh God, yes.

Dava:
... to help him perform this surgery, and this lawyer is just aghast.

Wilma:
That was a horrible story.

Dava:
I thought it was hilarious.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
I enjoyed it. Did it get you turned on at the beginning there, Wilma?

Wilma:
[Laughing] Yeah.

Lynda:
The intestines couldn’t be put back in.

Dava:
Exactly.

Lynda:
Oh, I can’t ...

Dava:
That’s great.

Bill:
That was something else, the way they continued to stuff it like you would a ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
... some sort of gourmet sausage or something.

Wilma:
I had to skip a sentence there. I went, “OK [laughs], I don’t need any more of this.”

Bill:
Yeah, that was enough; that was enough.

Wilma:
But it was interesting.

Bill:
And this from “Order in the Court”—incidents that occurred in courthouses:

“Sometimes fireworks break out in the courtroom under the stern and dignified visage of a circuit judge. In the circuit courtroom of the old courthouse at Jackson, a large round indentation could be seen in the plaster just behind the witness chair. It came there in this way:

“A young man was being tried for killing a neighbor of about the same age. The victim’s mother sat on the front row of benches listening intently to the accounts of the witnesses. As the defendant was testifying, the woman jumped to her feet and yelled, ‘I’ve heard enough of these damned lies!’ She drew a pistol from her handbag and shot the defendant ‘straight through the heart.’ That was the end of the trial, but the dent in the plaster lasted till the courthouse was demolished.”

So not all of them are—although, this is a tragic story [laughs]. I was going to say not all of them are tragic.

[Everyone talks at once]

Bill:
But there are funny incidents that he tells, along with some very serious ...

Wilma:
Well, that’s part of the storytelling technique, again, is the humor. I mean, the local-color or regional stories always are told with a bit of humor, no matter how sad the individual details are in the story. There is still an underlying humor. And that’s what makes them that local-color type of thing, because if he were telling these straight—without humor to them, you know—you would be reading some interesting stories, but it wouldn’t be the same thing. It wouldn’t be this local color with the dialect and the eccentric characters.

Lynda:
But aren’t you amazed at how well it translates into the written word? I mean, sometimes really good stories ...

Wilma:
Yes.

Lynda:
... get lost in the translation when you have to put them on paper.

Wilma:
Well, isn’t that what made him a really fine author? That he was able to take the oral tradition stories and translate them in a way that we can still enjoy them.

Lynda:
So they are not lost.

Bill:
Well, I have to refer to the back cover, to John Egerton—who somebody, I think, says is at the University of North Carolina, and of course still writing—says, “I can close my eyes and see the man”—talking of Caudill—“even hear his rich mountain voice—measured, distinctly accented, engaging, etched with wit and anger and compassion.” So maybe somewhere he has been recorded. I think one of you said that you would love to hear him read some of these stories and tell some of these stories. There are still storytelling festivals in Kentucky—I think there is one very famous one, is there not, that KET has probably had on many times?—that I think would be fun to go to sometime because of this tradition that’s carried on. What are some of your other favorite stories in the book?

Lynda:
I have to tell one from the chapter called “The Courts of the Squires.” He explains in the chapter what the roots are of the court system, and he also explains that it’s been reformed since then. He explains how it started out, and he says that in the early days the sheriffs and the constables and the deputy sheriffs received payment for people that they brought in who were adulterers. And he says:

“In those days adultery was frowned upon, to be sure, but the vigor with which violators were pursued perhaps had more to do with the willingness of the accused parties to pay fines quietly. With the promise from the court to keep all the documents confidential notoriety was avoided. Thus it was that constables, deputy constables, and deputy sheriffs roamed in the land in search of ‘violators.’”

So then he tells the story of how a deputy saw a car going off into the trees, and he waited about 10 minutes and then he proceeded on foot to follow the car; and the pair was caught dead in the act, so he says. So then they hire Harry Caudill to be their attorney, the couple does, and when they are talking to their lawyer, this is what he writes:

“The man looked intently at the toe of his polished shoe. After a moment of reflective silence, the woman cleared her throat. ‘Mr. Caudill,’ she said, ‘this is the most embarrassing thing I ever heard of and we both ought to be horse whipped. The truth is that we have been married for 22 years!’”

[Everyone laughs]

“‘We have two children in high school and a daughter in college.’ Handing me their marriage certificate, she inquired, ‘What in the world are we going to do?’”

So the case was quietly dismissed. But it was just a funny story. And so in telling the story, he also weaves in the history of the court system, which is really fascinating.

Gabrielle:
I like how you see the injustice in the way things happen in the courtroom. And he ... At the end of some of the stories, he’ll say, “I wonder if Lady Justice is smiling now or if she is peeking underneath her blindfold and appreciating the irony in the way the case ends.”

Bill:
Thus the name of the book, so entitled. Who did that for him, or who gave him that idea? Do you remember?

Wilma:
That was John Y. Brown.

Bill:
John Y. Brown Sr.

Wilma:
John Sr.

Bill:
When he said—this is in his later years:

“I frequently urged John Y. Sr. to write a book about his professional career, and toward the end he talked of doing it. He even went so far as to choose a title for the book he never wrote: ‘Slender Is the Thread.’ This was an allusion to the ancient Greek concept of the Goddess of Justice who holds in one hand the swift, keen sword of retribution, and in the other the scales by which each word and circumstance is weighed and measured. The goddess is blindfolded”—we have all seen that, of course—“so that she may not be influenced by appearances, and the scales are suspended from her fingers by a slender thread. His half-century at the bar had taught John how very tenuous, frail, and uncertain is that thread, and how easily the balance may be caused to shift from perfect justice to imperfect result.”

So he sort of gives credit for the title there.

Wilma:
I was thinking when you were mentioning John Y. Brown Sr., that’s another interest in the book. There are so many people mentioned here that are standard names that we would know in Kentucky, had we been here—or even if you hadn’t. I mean, there are some people well enough known, and I think it was his last chapter that’s a tribute to Carl Perkins. Isn’t it the last chapter? And that was very interesting, too. So I found a lot of people fascinating that Harry Caudill would have known and come in contact with. And he tells stories on them, too, but I did like that part of it.

Bill:
Well, as someone that grew up here and moved away for a while and came back, when some of these people were in office, too, I think it really does give you a chance to reflect on Carl Perkins and the other friends that he had: John Brown Sr.—we are more familiar with the son, of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame and all of that. Who are some of the others?

Wilma:
He mentions Bert Combs ...

Bill:
Oh yeah.

Wilma:
... and Happy Chandler, and I mean just a major source of names. And he doesn’t tell anything if it’s unkind, unless it’s something so public that we would have already known that.

[Everyone agrees]

Bill:
Gabrielle, what do you think of all of us here in Kentucky talking about these people and reading ...

[Everyone laughs]

Bill:
... books? Eastern Kentucky and Appalachia—we have read so much from there. What impression do you have, as someone who came from out of state?

Gabrielle:
I think when you read stories like this and you are afraid that you will start falling into believing the stereotypes ... And so when you read this, you start thinking, “OK, what’s real and what’s exaggerated?” But it’s colorful, and it gives you a sense of history and what has happened and how Kentucky has become—or even Lexington and this area—how the storytelling and everything has evolved through the years.

Bill:
Dava, you have already commented a little bit about this.

Dava:
Well, I think when he describes the characteristics of a person living in Eastern Kentucky, stereotypical as it may be, a lot of it is true. And a lot of it is admirable. He talks about the independence and what can sometimes be stubbornness, like clinging to tradition. People who know their identity and don’t want to give it up and want to cling onto the good and bad of who they are and are not ashamed of it. So I think that in itself is very admirable, even if it does give some nice little stories. But I have no problem with it.

Bill:
We’ve left out the infamous story of Jim Frasier. Anyone want to attempt to verbalize that?

[Everybody laughs]

Gabrielle:
Everybody in town looked like him. No, but it wasn’t that bad.

Bill:
Well, sort of explain that a little bit better if you can.

Gabrielle:
I think, if I remember the story correctly, he was a very popular store owner. Maybe it was the only store, the general store. And all of a sudden people started noticing offspring throughout the town and nearby towns were starting to look exactly like him—I mean, the features, the blue eyes, the way he walked and his movements.

Bill:
Sort of a stocky fellow.

Gabrielle:
Energy, yeah. And even the balding hair—like, when you saw the kids as they got older ...

[Everybody laughs]

Gabrielle:
... they looked exactly like him. And so people started wondering ... Or husbands, to their dismay, found that their newborn child was growing up to look like the store owner.

Dava:
And everybody accepted this. It was no big deal. And when one of his illegitimate children went on to commit a crime, they were like, he was the only one of his kids that wasn’t very sharp.

[Everyone laughs]

Dava:
The others are pretty quick-witted.

Bill:
And you know, the thing about that is that there are still plenty of Frasiers ...

Dava:
Yeah.

Bill:
... in those counties and little burgs.

Lynda:
Now you know why.

Bill:
So bottom-line this for us, Wilma.

Wilma:
Well, I think it’s certainly worth reading. Harry Caudill certainly is a wonderful storyteller, and even though I object to some of the obvious stereotypes that he uses, I recommend the book to anyone.

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