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Saturday, October 3, 2009

SMOKY MOUNTAIN MAGIC by Horace Kehart

Smoky Mountain Magic by Horace Kephart
Great Smoky Mountains Association: Gatlinburg, TN
$12.95 (paperback) –205 pages - 2009

Art dreads the commonplace. Most readers lead drab lives. Give them color, stir their emotions, let them realize, for the time, their dreams and longings. What they like is the unknown and what they know can never occur to them.”
Smoky Mountain Journal, Horace Kephart, p. 2

Among the varied “revelations” brought to light during the celebrations attending the 75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year was the verification of the existence of an unpublished novel by Hoarace Kephart. Until this discovery, Kephart’s reputation rested on two singular achievements: (1) He is the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a definitive work on the culture and traditions of Southern Appalachia; and (2) He proved to be the primary impetus for the creation of the Park by speaking, writing and soliciting financial support from government agencies and foundations. Now, some 80 years later, Kephart’s descendants have announced the existence of Smoky Mountain Magic, a “lost novel of mystery, intrigue and romance.”

According to the Preface to the novel, written by Kephart’s granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave, the manuscript has survived intact due to the efforts of Kephart’s heirs. On May 1, 2009, The Great Smoky Mountains Association acquired the manuscript with the understanding that they would publish it. Smoky Mountain Magic was officially released last week.

So, what is Smoky Mountain Magic? What was Kephart’s motivation in writing it? Does it have merit? One critic (Daniel Pierce, History Dept. UNC-A) has compared it to digging up a “time capsule from the 1920’s,” and that seems an apt comparison. Also, it quickly becomes evident that Kephart had a shrewd eye for the popular novels and films of his time; he was well acquainted with writers such as Emma Bell Miles (Spirit of the Mountains) and James Fox (Trail of the Lonesome Pine.) These authors provided him with an excellent template for a tale of “mystery, intrigue, and romance.”

Kephart’s protagonist, John Cabarrus, a.k.a. “Little Jack Dale,” is a man of mystery. When he appears in Kittuwa (Bryson City), he attracts the interest of the entire community, including Tom Burbank, the local sheriff, William Matlock, a corrupt land speculator; Youlus Lumbo, a member of a degenerate mountain family; and Marian Wentworth, a beautiful, intelligent (and highly independent) young woman who is visiting relatives for the summer. We soon learn that Cabarrus has returned to Kittuwa and Deep Creek to right old wrongs, find a missing deed and conduct a geological survey that may lead to a hidden mineral deposit worth a fortune. After a few meetings and a good bit of witty repartee, John and Marian find that they are attracted to each other. The promise of a passionate consummation hangs in the air like the scent of honeysuckle.

Now, let’s add a venerable old chief of the Cherokees named Dagataga and an old friend of John Cabarrus, who is well-versed in the ancient legends of his people. A nighttime visit by John and Mirian to Dagataga's home during a thunderstorm provides a proper setting for suspense, magic and the supernatural. As the old chief relates the frightful myth of a vengeful serpent called the Uktena, startling his audience by producing the Ulunsuti, the magic jewel that was plucked from the Uktena’s skull, Kephart’s tale moves into a new theme: the true meaning of myth and the struggle between science (or reason) and the world's ancient superstitions and myths.

To Kephart’s credit, he manages to weave these colorful strands together into a unique pattern. In time, Cabarrus’search for mineral deposits leads him to a wilderness labyrinth, Nick’s Nest,an "otherworldly place" that is shunned by both the white settlers and the Cherokees. Cabarrus’ descent into this dark hollow will bring him face to face with the contraries represented by myth and science.

Smoky Mountain Magic reflects a time when heroes like John Cabarrus dominated novels and film. Cabarrus is handsome, courageous, physically fit and the master of a dozen diverse fields, including mythology, geology, botany, poetry and psychology. (He will quote Disraeli,Robert Burns or The Iliad at the drop of a hat.) Whereas Mirian is frequently puzzled and uncertain about the world’s unknown aspects, she can simply turn to John who will gently “inform” her. In fact, her primary purpose seems to be to provide John with the opportunity to demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the subject is the subtleties of the Cherokee language, the diversity of plant life, astronomy, the composition of radium or the theory of “thought transference,” John always speaks with total authority. In 1929, it is possible that audiences and readers adored men of this caliber; in 2009, they would consider Cabarrus a pompous and pretentious ass.

Is Kephart’s novel entertaining? Yes, it is. Even at this late date, Smoky Mountain Magic has significant entertainment value. Some of the scenes move with an infectious vitality and excitement. Kephart is at his best in dealing with atmosphere. The visit to Chief Dagataga is masterfully done and the graphic descriptions of numerous solitary wilderness scenes are memorable.

Although many of the minor characters remained woefully undeveloped, the author has a gift for creating “local color”through masterful miniature portraits of minor “characters.” Especially noteworthy is “Sang Johnny,” who survives by digging herbs; Old Hex, Sang Johnny’s mother, who is known as a witch and practitioner of dark magic; Myra Swimming Deer, John's childhood nurse, and the Cherokee tracker named Runner, who could follow his prey through the forests with a kind of supernatural certainty.

Smoky Mountain Magic would make an excellent movie since the journey into the unknown (“Nick’s Nest”) is still a viable theme. The characters are uncomplicated (like the cast of a Hardy Boys Adventure), violence is minimal and actual murder is restricted to the murder of creatures :a rattlesnake and a "fice" (Kephart's spelling) dog. Despite the fact that the villains are dedicated to killing our hero they are all thwarted without significant bloodshed. (Even black-hearted Matlock get off with a mere brain concussion); and sexual content, despite a lot of heavy breathing and a passionate kiss or two, is definitely G-rated.

Kephart's motivation is writing Smoky Mountain Magic is obvious. He hoped to tap the rich market for tales of adventure - both in fiction and in cinema. What better topic than a journey into a forbidden realm, complete with witches, robber barons, noble savages and a winsome lady - all wrapped in a cloak of mystery and myth. Doubtless, Kephart's notorious inability to handle finance prompted him to write the novel.He probably dreamed of paying his debts and acquiring solvency. It should have worked, but as John Cabarrus notes, quoting Robert Burns,"the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley." If Kephart's spirit still haunts Kittuwa, he should be immensely pleased to know that even after 80 years, he has made another significant contribution to the Great Smokies National Park.

16 comments:

  1. Gary,
    as we have dicussed before I am a fan of Horace's writing, I'm off to Amazon for a copy of this! Thanks for the heads up!! :)

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  2. Having read (and enjoyed)Smoky Mountain Magic, I think you've provided a fair assessment of the novel. Considering the work in the context of the time it was written, SMM fares well. To your last paragraph, I would simply add this: even though Kephart didn't profit from the book, I think he would be smiling to know that (after all these years) the proceeds from the sales will benefit the Park that he played an important role in creating. That's a legacy!

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  3. Thank you, Gulahiyi!
    What you read is "in progress," since I am still writing and revising the review and will probably be doing so for most of this day (Sunday). I will probably take you advice on the last paragraph. I appreciate your interest. I sometimes feel that I am yelling down a deep well, "Hello! HELLO! ANYBODY DOWN THERE?"

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  4. Join the club! I was expecting two kinds of reviews for this book: uncritical fawning or merciless dissection. Thanks for avoiding those extremes. When they died on that ill-fated likker run, Kephart's pal Fiswoode Tarleton might have been a better-known writer. But after leafing through Tarleton's short-story collection, "Bloody Ground," I'd say Kep's attempt at fiction more than holds its own.
    I see what you mean about the cinematic potential of SMM, and it pains me to know that the movie-makers will feel compelled to sex it up with lots of T'n'A, instead of allowing the story to be what it is. God, how I despise Hollywood! Read the book. Skip the movie.

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  5. *** that's a remarkably perceptive review in every regard . . . the initial exploration of "Nick's Nest" (a real place, sort of, near Bryson Place on Deep Creek) is my favorite part

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  6. Thank you, kind sir. I was a bit anxious when Cabarrus made his descent into Nick's Nest because the episode began to sound like the guy who found King Tut's tomb. I thought perhaps Cabarrus would say, "Wonders! I see Wonders!"

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  7. *** Nicks Nest will soon be overrun with Kephart Cavern seekers . . . there should be plenty of rattlesnakes up there but I suspect he relocated one of the Nantahala caves to Deep Creek
    *** regarding HK's surprisingly extensive use of the Uktena legend . . . did you by chance spot any elements that he didn't borrow from Mooney? . . . I suspect he had contemporary informants as well but can't pinpoint which is which

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  8. Well, I noticed that he sort of streamlined the Uktena myth and didn't mention Auganitsi's curse, to have the snake grow from his head....as well as the Ulunsuti's "taking root" in his hand! I don't remember anything in Mooney about the "inner core" of the crystal that is liquid. I've probably got Cumming' account of the sacred stone and Charles Hudson's "opinions"about the stone ... all run together. Gulahiyi has somebody on his blog that has some unusual takes on the stone and some of them are coming from Cherokee.

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  9. Publishing Smoky Mountain Magic has been such an honor. Working with the folks as GSMA (Steve Kemp and Terry Maddox in particular), Dale Ditmanson, George Ellison and Elizabeth Ellison has made the 80-year journey to see this novel published possible. Thank you, Gary for taking the time to read the novel, then review it.
    ~Libby Kephart Hargrave, great-granddaughter of Horace and Laura Kephart~

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  10. Thank you, Libby. I'm looking forward to meeting you.

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  11. *** thanks . . . the posts re the Ulunsuti, etc., on Gulahiyi's blog are interesting and cite sources I wasn't aware of ... I have some random thoughts ... Kephart maintained his librarian's packrat mentality until the end and no doubt compulsively consulted most of the printed sources, including James Adair (1775), but as you suggest "streamlined" them for his purposes ... someone will earn a master's degree figuring that out ... some years ago I was told by Cherokee friends that certain families still possessed Ulunsuti stones buried away in blood in deerskin pouches but I have never seen one ... did you ever hear stories like that? ... I have often wondered if Mooney and Kephart ever crossed paths ... it's possible ... after going west in 1890 JM didn't come back to Cherokee until 1911 or so, after which he stayed for awhile in the Big Cove every year until 1916 visiting with Will West Long ... I'm still astonished that HK actually wrote an entertaining novel with themes worth discussing ... anyway, I linked yr review to a number of people (not all related to Kephart) who thought it was first rate, too, but that's enough of that

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  12. Yes, people told me stories, but nobody ever showed me anything. Have you read Charles Hudson's discussion of the Ulunsuti stones? He has a photo of one, too. It is in that "The Southeastern Indians." I just looked it up again in my old beat-up copy. If you have it check out page 167-68. Although he is evasive, I guess that is supposed to be an Ulunsuti on page 168. It seems to me that "a magic crystal" is the same thing. This may be the place where I got the idea that the Ulunsuti is dangerous and will turn on the person who possesses it.

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  13. **** yes, I have Hudson's book but hadn't read his account re the Ulunsyuti stones for quite awhile ... in looking back over the parts of SMM dealing with the theft and recovery of Degataga's stone I especially enjoyed the depiction of Runner, the sharp-eyed Cherokee tracker Myrna Swimming-Deer dispatched to locate the thief ... you might recall a similar character named Famous Shoes who appears in several of Larry McMurtry's novels ... western novels and movies are full of tracking legends and lore, but I don't recall previously hearing or reading about eastern Cherokee trackers

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  15. I just finished reading Smoky Mountain Magic.
    A truly enjoyable story full of local color and mountain lore. The dialect was fun to decipher, and even more fun to repeat aloud as written!

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