Any adequate literary accounting of North Carolina would seem to require certain elements. The state's natural beauty, the sound of its spoken language, and the history of its land and people. Cultural traditions of storytelling and music and Southern hospitality would have to be in there. So would the mythic South depicted in popular culture, and so would an impassioned defense of vinegar-based barbecue.
The second book in Texas Review Press's Best Creative Nonfiction of the South series checks off all the boxes. Coedited by Michael Chitwood, a prolific poet and a lecturer in UNC's English department, the slim volume contains seventeen selections by many of the state's biggest living literary names, from memoirs to essays and travel writing, all with a pronounced North Carolina terroir.
"Nubbin' stretcher," "sour sop, chitlins, churn rags, and clabber," and "not nary a any" are just a few of the terms Thomas Rain Crowe drops in "Native Tongue," which reverentially depicts his reclamation of the Southern Mountain Speech that he tried to hide when he moved north. In "An Imperfect Marriage," Jan DeBlieu describes moving to a much-fantasized west, only to feel the inexorable pull of her native region. Clyde Edgerton's "A Story" feels like a yarn—there's a great-grandma with seven names, an aunt given to malapropisms, digression upon delightful digression—before it builds to the realization that "place helps make people into who they become."
Depictions of the beauty of a bygone world abound. In "Horses and Boys," Marianne Gingher evokes the unambiguous sunshine of a seemingly less fraught, but not at all dainty, era, on a farm near Greensboro: "I loved the rollicking dirtiness, the thin black rinds of filth under my fingernails, the way horse hair and sweat mingled and dried lacily on the insides of my calves and thighs," she writes in a vehement passage that verges on poetry.
The collection's longest piece is also its saddest. In "Chiefing in Cherokee," a couple researching the Trail of Tears arrives in Cherokee, N.C., and finds the town taken over by stores hawking kitsch. They're outraged at the sight of Native Americans clad in inauthentic costumes who dance for tips for the white tourist trade, but are forced to examine the limitations of their own perspective. They excavate the history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and marvel at its resiliency. Among numerous poignant facts, we learn that the Museum of the Cherokee Indian was among the first museums to confront viewers with human suffering.
In "Hospitality," Scott Huler claims he moved to North Carolina for free refills on soda and tea, and assesses this Southern tradition from an almost anthropological view, locating its origins as an antidote to loneliness in the rural South. In "A Torrent of Kindness," Allan Gurganus similarly assays the nature of graciousness but through a more hopeful lens, concluding, movingly, that it's "a strange, radical thing."
It's satisfying that the final story, Bland Simpson's "The Christmas Kayaker," encapsulates many of the themes and charms of the foregoing pieces. With the seductive precision of a well-told tall tale, the story portrays the intimate geography of the state and the sound and spirit of its people, ending with an invitation of pure Southern hospitality.
The only unwelcome surprise is a lack of editorial precision. I came across several typos, along with a misquotation of an iconic Carl Sandburg line and misspellings of Allan Gurganus and Georgann Eubanks. But that won't be an issue when you hear the stories read aloud, as they will be at the Regulator on Tuesday, when Chitwood will be joined by Randall Kenan, whose piece on the N.C. hog industry is a tour de force, and poet Michael McFee.