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December's Book
Come Back to the Farm
by Jesse Stuart

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Bill:
It has been said that Jesse Stuart created his own fictional world, a distinctive one, and makes us care about what goes on there. In hundreds of short stories, he practices this craft; and in Come Back to the Farm, Stuart demonstrates this to the reader. Join us for our discussion of Jesse Stuart’s Come Back to the Farm. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
Nice book. We were just looking at the cover: a watercolor—an original, we think, or at least on this edition. This is the—what did we say a few minutes ago?—the 11th of 16 volumes of short stories. As I said in the intro, [Stuart wrote] hundreds of short stories, along with poetry and essays and some of the other things. Let’s just start with what’s your favorite short story out of this collection entitled Come Back to the Farm. Anybody want to go first?

Dava:
I like “Maybelle’s First-Born” because it involves this lady named Maybelle who’s waiting for her first child. She is married, and her husband has a very old-fashioned mother who believes in traditional therapies. Maybelle has an abscessed tooth, and her mother-in-law thinks that she can leach out the infection with the tobacco pouch in her mouth and by making her sit with her feet in a hot tub of, I think, soapy water ... is it? Maybe there might be ...

Wilma:
Ashes.

Dava:
Oh yeah, ashes; yeah.

Jonathan:
Hot water and ashes.

Dava:
Yeah. And so it’s really just a story that talks about—as much of this book recollects—the old ways living on the farm. Many of the new advancements have made life better for people. It involves Maybelle having to go, finally, to a doctor to have the child instead of having a midwife, and I just really liked it.

Jonathan:
Yeah, well, that story is interesting because it seemed to be offering some gentle or not-so-gentle criticism of the old folklore beliefs, didn’t it? I mean, he’s depicting a world here where it’s in between, you know, a modern understanding of the world and a very old-fashioned understanding of the world in which people believe in traditional ways, including herbal and superstitious remedies. And I guess it’s her in-laws, isn’t it, who believe in the traditional way? And I mean, they don’t really make any sense, these remedies, really, do they? I mean, for a toothache, why would you put your feet in hot water?

Bill:
Well, there is a lot of that, though, in other stories ...

Jonathan:
There is, but I think in that one it seemed like the author was really saying, “Well, this really was a lot of old hooey and you know, let’s ...” I thought it was humorous, but it was definitely trying to make a point about where he stood in relation to all that. In fact, the in-laws who had these superstitious beliefs, they were almost depicted as clownish, comic, to the ... You know, they were almost ridiculed, weren’t they? Did you think that, Wilma?

Wilma:
Yes, I did, Jonathan. And I thought this also was an unusual story because part of the book ... It’s an interesting collection. It wasn’t written as a collection by Jesse Stuart himself, of course; it was collected. It was collected by someone else. Many of these stories are semi-autobiographical about a boy named Shan and his growing up—sometimes when he’s a very young boy and sometimes when he’s a grown man. But that particular one [“Maybelle”] wasn’t within that grouping. And so sometimes when I started a story, I thought, “Is this a story about Shan, or is it another story?” Did you think that same thing, Gabrielle?

Gabrielle:
Yeah. And as you go throughout the book, sometimes you wonder, “OK, wait; I need a family tree”—just to see who’s the uncle and who he’s married to ... [to] put everything in perspective.

Bill:
Gabrielle, what was your favorite or one of your favorites?

Gabrielle:
Oh, I liked the story with the two girls. That was ...

Bill:
That was a fun story, wasn’t it?

Gabrielle:
Yeah. “The Highest Bidder”—that was hilarious. I thought that was funny. And again, another point I think he was trying to make was about the guys that were coming back from war and what their attitudes were for those that didn’t go to war. So there are lots of points that he tries to make throughout the book.

Wilma:
There are political statements in the book, because ...

Gabrielle:
Yes.

Wilma:
... most of these people were Democrats. And remember when the young woman brought her husband home? In fact, it was one of my favorite stories [“Little Giant”]. The young man went to another person’s farm to be their what-do-you-call—lackey; you know, he worked for them—but he fell in love with their beautiful daughter, and then she married a kind of a dandy from her college years. And then he had to go rescue her finally. So I thought that was kind of an interesting story, too, but it was the same type of thing because when the young man [the dandy] first came to the daughter’s house, he talked about being a Republican and how important that was and ... You know, that wrong footing right off. So there were politics in the story as well as kind of a homespun humor and that type of thing.

Bill:
What did you think of “Wild Plums”? Was there a lesson in that one? And let me just ask you ... In a lot of these, you mentioned a minute ago ... Was it preachy at times? Was there a theme running through it that—not in all the stories ... Well, there certainly was in “Highest Bidder.”

Gabrielle:
Right.

Bill:
And there seemed to be, in a lot of the stories, a way that he sort of subtly, at least, reminded you of a lesson or actually told a lesson.

Jonathan:
I think ... Sorry, Wilma.

Wilma:
That’s all right.

Jonathan:
I think that he actually wrote a lot of stories for children, didn’t he? And for young people? But you read a story like “Victory and the Dream,” about this young man who’s plowing the family field. It’s a highly detailed description of plowing the field, and nothing much happens in it except this sort of personal victory that the boy feels he has achieved over the field for [it’s] the first time he’s ever managed to do it. And then it seems kind of preachy at the end, it really does, and it seems as though it’s a kind of morally uplifting tale for young boys. You know, like in British literature we have what was called the “boys’ own stories,” which were morally uplifting.

Bill:
Huh?

Jonathan:
Stories for young ... young boys in the Empire. And here this is like that, you know; it will teach you how to live, in a sense. If I could just read from that:

“Now I stood on the side of the south slope and looked back over our new-ground cornfield. I had the greatest sense of accomplishment I had ever had in my life. The job was finished. I had realized a dream, a dream that it could be done. Poss enjoyed my victory with me. He led Jack and carried his planter back to the sled and I carried the plow. The dream was finished. It was over.”

And then it goes on to say after this, “I can do anything I want. I can do well in high school. I can play football and win all our games. I can go to college.” And it seemed almost ... The kind of epiphany at the end seems greater than it should be. And I think it’s also piling on the moral rather thickly. But I think it was designed for kids, that particular story.

Wilma:
He has [written for young people]. And I’m glad you said that because, at the time when I taught school, very often I would teach Jesse Stuart stories. They were very easy if you were beginning to talk about symbolism or theme or something about the plot. It was very easy to get the children to understand this because it was so blatant, I suppose, but because the symbols and the lessons kind of, at the end, were very, very obvious; let me put it that way. A great many of these just have to do with family and relationships and that type of thing. But you are right, he did write a great many stories for young people.

Jonathan:
But what you get in this book, Come Back to the Farm, is 16 stories from over the course of his career, and some probably were written for children [or] with children in mind and some not. And so really it’s a mixture. And what slightly irked me, just ever so slightly ... Well, let’s say I was curious to know more about the dating of the individual stories.

Bill:
Uh huh. You don’t get that in the volume.

Jonathan:
Yeah. It wouldn’t make it an unwieldy scholarly volume just to have said, you know, “This was first published in 1930, and this was written first ...” I mean, when you are reading this chronology and so on ... He’s written 60 novels or something, and he’s got a career over 50 years, nearly, hasn’t he?

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
And so, what’s the early stuff and what’s the late stuff and what’s the middle stuff?

Bill:
Well, somebody else mentioned that, I think; that would have been important. I mean, I think it would have helped me to know that some of these were earlier. I mean, you can almost tell that some of them are told as really just country tales. I mean, there is no moral or there is no lesson to be learned at the end. And then you stumble upon one ... There’s the way the editor has put them together. It was a bit troubling, and quite frankly I do not know that in the other 16 volumes, or 15 volumes, of short stories ... Maybe they are all put together like that. I don’t know if they follow any sort of thematic ...

Wilma:
And I think it’s important for us, because Jesse Stuart is an important Kentucky author and he was Kentucky poet laureate, for us to understand. Not just to enjoy this as a book—you know, some nice tales—but I think we want to know what was his early work like, what was his middle work like, what was his later work like? And so I think we want to know about the man as much as the stories in something like this. And I agree with Jonathan: It would have been helpful to have had, as you said, just a very simple chronology of the stories. Or maybe where they were published the first time might have been interesting, too.

Bill:
Talk about the title a little bit: what it means or if it has any [meaning]. Does it resonate with the stories that are included—“come back to the farm”? Obviously they are all rural. But Dava, what is it ... Does it strike anything with you?

Dava:
Well, I think the title fits the compilation of stories. The stories tell ... A lot of them are very nostalgic and portray very fond memories ...

Bill:
What other kind of sense does it give you, well, of the farm, of ...

Dava:
A family ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Dava:
... and land, and being ... Not just being on the land, but working the land and being one with it—like a son of the soil ...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
... if you will. And I think you can tell that Jesse Stuart was a person closely tied with the land who thought that, you know, you had to get back with nature to, you know, be a fully functioning human, as a human is supposed to be. And you kind of see that in these stories, and I think it’s very obvious.

Bill:
That’s a key descriptive word: nature. I mean that there’s that theme throughout his descriptions of the river and of the land, and when they were walking, of the seasons changing and that sort of thing. So there was a lot of that, too.

Gabrielle:
I thought there was a sense of pride and heritage where they talked about sticking with one’s family, and the family supporting and coming back. And there seemed to be a sense of pride when someone came back home and bought farmland and cultivated it and lived off the land ... So you got that sense. And also I got a sense of coming of age and coming towards the end of your life and reflecting. There are lots of pieces where there were some reflections where people started thinking about, “OK, this is my life in the twilight years, so to speak. What have I done, and how is the land improved?” etc.

Wilma:
One story [“The Best Years of Our Lives”] that was ... not disturbing in the way that it made you think, but it was not complete ... It was when Shan came back to his uncle’s house and his uncle at that point was ...

Jonathan:
86.

Wilma:
86, thank you. And he [the uncle] could not even go upstairs in the family home, and there was something indecisive about the story. I mean, nothing was exactly right because even Shan was not well. And his uncle certainly wasn’t well. And the house was falling down, and the garden had become overgrown, and there was no resolution in that story. I’m not sure.

Dava:
Working on the land. They were both getting the government subsidy.

Wilma:
And they were getting the government subsidy.

Dava:
Another theme, too.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It was interesting, yeah: The economics of the land changed, and the economics of farming life had changed, and the old man couldn’t understand how you used to get paid for producing and now you get paid for not producing.

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
It’s quite good.

Bill:
“The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Dava:
Right. And everything ...

Jonathan:
“The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Wilma:
It was good. It was an interesting story in that it wasn’t ... There was a point, but it wasn’t didactic, you know. It gave you kind of one little incident that happened, and it was also a little bit ... It had some sadness to it, because Shan had not been there in over a year to see this uncle, who had been a very close uncle, and the uncle [was] obviously getting very old, so there were some interesting questions.

Jonathan:
It was almost like an elegy, you know.

Wilma:
Yes.

Jonathan:
For the house, because—remember?—the roof had a hole in it.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Jonathan:
But the old man wouldn’t admit there was a hole. And it talked about how that house was built by his grandfather on the site of the original house which had been built by the great-grandfather, who’d been an Indian fighter.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
Yeah, it was sort of a hymn of nostalgia for the Kirk family ...

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Jonathan:
... of which he was the last remaining descendant, and no children. So yeah, it was kind of elegiac, but ... When a poem is an elegy, [it] usually affirms something lasting, you know, that will help you deal with the grief. But this incident—there was nothing here, except, perhaps ...

Gabrielle:
His memories.

Jonathan:
In the context of this book, it suggested that there is continuity in the land.

Wilma:
Well, that’s a good point. If we were reading that story alone, we would have a sense of, maybe, that nothing was important. But in the context of the book, we see that lots of other families go on. People do survive. They go on and have fulfilling lives. But [in] that particular story, there wasn’t too much there to indicate that. Even something disturbing that Shan noticed when he went upstairs in the house: All the antiques were gone upstairs, and he had no idea when those had left and why. And you know, it was just something like that—there were so many unanswered questions in that story. But I liked it.

Bill:
And then in the midst of some of the stories that we’ve discussed comes a story like the Menifee County—what’s the full title of that one?

Wilma:
The one about the snakes.

Bill:
Yes, it is about the snakes: “Why Menifee Wasn’t Our Country.”

Wilma:
Yeah.

Bill:
Or “Wasn’t Our ...” Yes, “Our Country.” It is “country,” because they are talking about the county. Now we did chuckle a little bit about the stories and their inclusion of our reptile friends. There were several like that. What do you think about that story?

Wilma:
It was almost a tall tale.

Bill:
Well, now, it was one of those where he didn’t really ...

Wilma:
Yeah.

Bill:
No moral, no.

Jonathan:
It was comic, actually. It is almost comic, isn’t it?

Bill:
Yeah, right.

Jonathan:
About the house built on top of a rattlesnake nest, and the board keeps coming up.

Wilma:
And the child ...

Bill:
That was the funniest part.

Wilma:
They didn’t own the floor.

Bill:
Well ...

Wilma:
They rented the house, but not the floor.

Bill:
Well, the guy that lived in the house before went off. He put the floor down, but he didn’t nail it down. Now if the floor had been nailed down ....

Wilma:
That’s right. If it had been nailed down, they would have owned it.

Bill:
It would have been theirs.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
So he didn’t nail it down.

Wilma:
And then under this very loose floor was this huge rattlesnake nest. And once they had killed them—didn’t they carry off two tubs full ...

Bill:
Yes.

Wilma:
... of dead rattlesnakes. But the children played with dead rattlesnakes.

Dava:
I know.

Wilma:
I don’t know; it was an interesting story.

Bill:
There was a reference there that was kind of funny: He would describe the older rattlesnakes as being old enough to vote.

Wilma:
Oh, that’s right.

Jonathan:
That was very well put. I thought that was good.

Bill:
Yeah, I thought that was really good.

Wilma:
I did, too.

Jonathan:
Old enough to vote, yeah.

Bill:
So I don’t want to spend too much time talking about where all these stories fit together.

Jonathan:
Snakes.

Bill:
Well, snakes ... I mean, that’s kind of funny how ...

Jonathan:
In that story, I guess, they weren’t pests as long as you didn’t disturb them. But once you disturbed them, they became pests, because then they started coming into your house, right? But in the other one we mentioned, “Wild Plums” ...

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
... you mentioned earlier, Bill ... You know, in a sense that was a story not about rattlesnakes and copperheads are poisonous, but black snakes are man’s best friend.

Wilma:
Right, right.

Jonathan:
That’s kind of the picture you get.

Gabrielle:
They were pets.

Wilma:
And can be pets, right.

Gabrielle:
Yes.

Jonathan:
And can be pets. But it almost had an ecological point to it, didn’t it: that you know there are certain snakes you definitely don’t kill because they are your friends, and they will kill the vermin, and they will kill other snakes. And that is the knowledge that the old man had and the young man had, but nobody else in the story had. Everybody else was damned; they didn’t know this about black snakes.

Dava:
If you did, you got some plums.

Jonathan:
That’s right. If you knew that, you could get the plums.

Bill:
Well, you are exactly right. And [in] about 11 or 12 or 15 pages or so, he made this sort of giant leap from moral tale to snakes as metaphors to ...

Jonathan:
It was quite amusing, I thought.

Bill:
It was; it was. But in the end there was a story there, too—the kinship that the old man felt for the younger fellow and allowing him to have the [plums]. And the description, I thought, was very nice, made my mouth water, of having wild plum jam on a hot biscuit with freestone water coffee made boiling early in the morning. I thought that was all very nice.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Yes.

Wilma:
I liked it.

Jonathan:
With water from the well.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
When did you last have that, though?

Bill:
Yeah, well, it’s been a while.

Wilma:
While you were talking, I zoned out a bit.

Bill:
Oh, did you really?

Wilma:
I thought of something else.

Bill:
That’s unusual for you.

Wilma:
I thought about how many of these stories are carried by dialogue.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
I mean, I think that is very difficult for an author to do and for it to feel comfortable, and sometimes you didn’t realize that it is just being carried totally by dialogue rather than much description. It’s when you are talking about description—and he’s very good at description; he truly is—but then he’s also very good at dialogue, because a story can be carried wholly by what the people are saying to each other, with very little description at all. So he has both of these sides. Sometimes he can go overboard with the description, as he did in the one with the boy plowing. You know, the dreams that went on and on a little bit.

Jonathan:
It was too long, I thought.

Wilma:
Yeah.

Gabrielle:
Right.

Jonathan:
It could have been edited a little.

Bill:
Along with dialogue ... dialect. How do you think he used that, and how do you compare the use of dialect in these stories, or really throughout, to maybe some of the other Kentucky authors you’ve read outside of the bookclub—or we’ve read in the bookclub—that used dialect. Did it get in the way, do you think?

Gabrielle:
I stumbled at first with the “terbacker.”

Wilma:
Terbacker.

Gabrielle:
And I finally figured out what it was, but after that ...

Wilma:
Terbacker.

Gabrielle:
Yeah, “terbacker.” Once I figured out it was tobacco, I was like, “OK.” But after that, I think it added authenticity to the story and made the characters come alive.

Jonathan:
I get the impression Jesse Stuart was popular not just in Kentucky and the South, but perhaps nationally at a certain stage. And for an author to gain a national reputation, he can have authentic speech, but it has to be able to travel. It cannot be so ...

Bill:
Exactly.

Jonathan:
... local that you can’t understand it if you are two states away.

Wilma:
And you’re more.

Jonathan:
So I think that the dialect is good. I mean it’s well done, and it does smack of authenticity, but it also is pretty easy to follow and understand. Sure—it’s not an issue.

Wilma:
It’s more a country dialect than a specific regional dialect.

Jonathan:
Yeah, that’s true

Wilma:
I mean, the way he’s ... You know what I’m saying: It could be country [from] another place.

Jonathan:
Cited a number of places, yeah.

Bill:
Sure. Where do you think Jesse Stuart will end up when somebody writes the definitive history of the short story—if it hasn’t already been put down somewhere—some scholarly work? Where do you think ... This is certainly unfair, to judge the hundreds of short stories from these 16, but where do you think he’ll end up with just aouthern writers, Wilma?

Wilma:
It’s hard to say. I mean, that is a good question, I think, because we think so much about Jesse Stuart because he’s a Kentucky author and, as Jonathan said, he has achieved, certainly, some national acclaim. He was quite often in textbooks, and you know, that’s a national thing, not a Kentucky or regional type of reputation. I don’t know. Certainly regional stories were written way before Jesse Stuart, but he was still early in Kentucky with this type of story, which is about the family. We have seen so many of them—you know, the idea of basic values, getting back to the land, how important family was.

Bill:
Place.

Wilma:
Place—that’s very important in a great many of Kentucky authors’ stories, but Jesse Stuart was somewhat early on, and that kind of broke some new ground. I’m not sure on a national level how important he will be, and yet ... I don’t know. It’s hard to say at this point, although he died in 1984, so we have had some amount of time to find out what his reputation is going to be. I don’t know. I’m from Kentucky, and so it’s hard for me to be objective about that. So I don’t know.

Dava:
Well, what you said earlier about his stories being simple and the fact that, you know, the theme is easy to discern, and it’s easy to see there is a moral lesson to be taught ... I can remember even when I was in my freshman year in high school, one of our textbooks actually had a story in it, and it was very valuable for that very aspect of it. And so I think in that sense, he should always perhaps be useful; his stories should be useful.

Bill:
And have an important place.

Dava:
And yeah, have an important place in that regard.

Bill:
Let’s take just the final few minutes and talk about the books we have read this year—not necessarily your number one favorite, but the ones that you’ve enjoyed and the ones that you have recommended, or the ones that you would give as gifts. Jonathan? Well, you have the list ...

Jonathan:
I’ve got the list here in front of me, so ... Well, you know, I have enjoyed a number of them for different reasons. Clotel was a wonderful book—harrowing, you know, but a wonderful story from, you know, the middle of the 19th century. Just a horrifying story, really. You know, we didn’t read a lot of poetry, did we? We read Maurice Manning’s Lawrence Booth.

Bill:
And that’s it; right.

Jonathan:
That’s it; right. So I’d say the best book of poems we read was Maurice Manning’s [laughs]. No, that was very good.

Bill:
It was good.

Jonathan:
We enjoyed that. It had a richness of language and the kind of bold statement by all these speakers, you know.

Bill:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And that was powerful work, I thought, and I think some of us agreed with that.

Bill:
Dava, choose one and talk about it for a second.

Dava:
Well, Aging with Grace was a great piece of nonfiction that we read about studies on Alzheimer’s—the nun study, in particular—and we don’t get to read a lot of nonfiction. This was done particularly well and well put together.

Bill:
Gabrielle?

Gabrielle:
I liked Clotel, too. I don’t know if I would give it as a gift, but it’s a great book for discussion and to lead discussion. And Lawrence Booth was another favorite. And The Believers. I really liked The Believers as well.

Bill:
Yes.

Gabrielle:
By Janice Holt Giles.

Bill:
Wonderful writing.

Gabrielle:
Yeah.

Wilma:
Well, I love a year when we can have both The Believers and Hell’s Angels on the same book list.

Bill:
You rode in on the motorcycle.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
Your motorcycle debut.

Wilma:
I loved that book! No, I really did enjoy Hell’s Angels; but I did love Lawrence Booth, Maurice Manning’s book. But we have so many good ones here, it’s always difficult ... Oh, and we should say something about the great Kentucky short story collection, Home and Beyond.

Bill:
Oh, that’s the one I would give as a gift. That would be my gift.

Jonathan:
Now there was one or two stories in there by Jesse Stuart, wasn’t there?

Bill:
Yeah.

Wilma:
That’s right.

Bill:
I think we need to mention Clay’s Quilt by now the noted Kentucky author [Silas House]. Even though he is very young, [he] has quit his day job as a postal worker and is writing full time and has a second novel out now and is really sought-after as a speaker and to sign his new book.

I think the important thing to point out to our viewers that have been with us now for several years [is] that this was a very good year, I think. And all of the books, from the first year we began the bookclub, are on the web site. And really these books contribute to a well thought-out, well planned (believe it or not), and sometimes almost gifted selection of fiction and nonfiction and poetry and some essays. And the 2003 selections are on the web site now, and people can begin to look [for what] we’ll be talking about soon. So it is a good selection, and I think that hopefully people are reading along with us and learning a lot more about Kentucky writers. Sometimes at the Kentucky Book Fair [in Frankfort each fall], for example, people come up, and they will be amazed at someone who lives in Kentucky or did not know that David Snowdon was at the University of Kentucky before we recommended that book to them. So it’s interesting.

And of course, you did know Jesse Stuart, but you are a fan of Hunter Thompson now. You met Jesse Stuart or knew of him. Have you met Hunter Thompson?

Wilma:
No, I haven’t. Have you?

Bill:
No. But there is always that chance, right?

Wilma:
Right. We can always hope ...


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