VERNA MAE SLONE lives in the hills of Pippa Passes, Kentucky, along the Cumberland Plateau, near the Virginia border. She lives in a log cabin not far from Caney Creek, where she was born 65 years ago, where she raised her children, and where Slones have lived since 1790. They settled there 23 years after Daniel Boone first hiked through the Cumberland Gap.
That's a history anyone might be proud of, but the people of Appalachia have never fared well in the public imagination. Even "Appalachia" was coined in the 1960s as a code word for the poverty that still haunts the region. Yet we know little of the people. They remain imprisoned by their beloved hills, rejected and ridiculed by the outside world.
"So many lies and half-truths have been written about us, the mountain people, that folks from other states have formed an image of a gun-totin', 'baccer'-spitting, whiskey-drinking, barefooted, foolish hillbilly . . . these lies . . . have done our children more damage than anything else. They have taken more from us than the large coal and gas companies did by cheating our forefathers out of their minerals, for that was just money."
Verna Mae Slone is rightfully angry about our destructive Beverly Hillbillies idea of mountain folk, but her book isn't a diatribe. It's a legacy of love, a family history originally written in longhand for her grandchildren, to make them proud of their mountain heritage. And it was "written to honor my father. I loved him so much that I was not willing to let the memory of him die."
What a remarkable man her father was! His formal education came only from his Blue-backed Speller and the Bible, but Isom B. "Kitteneye" Slone's wisdom, sensitivity, and mischievous sense of humor surpassed anything that could be absorbed in a classroom. Like other mountain people he made up for his lack of material wealth by resourcefulness and diligence. Chairmaker, logger, and farmer, he could cure a sick cow, lay a straight fence line, build a chimney with slate and clay, or regale his children with an inexhaustible repertoire of songs, stories, and down-to-earth wisdom:
"If you don't stand for something, you will get knocked down by everything."
"Don't be concerned about something that don't concern you. It won't make your bed any softer, or your meat fry any faster."
The tension of being a widower with a large family to support must have frazzled his nerves at times, yet Kitteneye's children got only compassion and guidance. When his six-year-old grandson was called as a trial witness, the judge asked:
"Do you know the difference between a lie and the truth?"
"Shore, Grandpa Kittneye learned me that."
"What would happen to you if you told a lie?"
"Why Grandpa would be awful plagued and mad to me."
"Would he whip you?"
"No, he never whup any'un."
"If you are not afraid of him, then why do you obey him?"
"Because I love him."
That nickname "Kitteneye" goes back to his birth in the winter of 1863. An older brother saw the tiny, premature baby and said, "Why he han't as big as a kitten's eye." The nickname stuck, but "although he was always small in size he was hard and sturdy as the hills . . .[and] as gentle as the cool summer winds that found their winding patch up the narrow hollow."
This is a warm and compelling book, like the author's life, uncluttered, honest, and wonderfully rich in detail. Her accounts of mountain people, their rituals and social codes are enriching, as is her stock of country lore: planting by the signs, "molassie stir-offs," putting food by, tales of "haunts," and moonshiners. But What My Heart Wants to Tell is really a love story about a woman's love for her unique father and her people, a special people who endured poverty but never gave in to poverty of the spirit.
"God knew it would take brave and sturdy people to survive in these beautiful but rugged hills. So he sent us his very strongest men and women, people who could enjoy life and search out the few pleasures that were contained in a life hard work."
These simple stories of joy and tragedy and people caring for each other will stay with you long after your first reading. You will realize, as Verna Mae Slone tells us, that "our young folks have lost so much without ever knowing they had it to lose."