When Thomas Wolfe immortalized Asheville, N.C., in the classic, "Look Homeward Angel," some of the towns well-known citizens, only thinly disguised in the book, were unhappy at being described in a less than flattering manner.
But the townspeople of Bristow, Va., are reacting quite differently to a new novel about their town: "A Buzzard Is My Best Friend" (MacMillan Publishing Co., October 1981). Their happiness is understandable. Author Margaret Anne Barnes has depicted most of the people in a kindly light.
And because of the book, people in the Prince William County hamlet have solved a mystery: They now know why that light was burning so late in Barnes' home during the seven years she lived in the community in the 1970s.
Bristow, a village so small you'd miss it if you blinked your eyes, is about five miles from the sprawling shopping centers and town houses around Manassas. Visiting the town on Route 690 is like taking a trip back in time.
The one-room general store still sells everything from gasoline to 2-cent candy to work boots; postmistress Myrtle Seacor has plenty of time to talk about the weather; and the White Elephant Antiques store displays chairs on the front porch.
Although many of the 200-odd families in Bristow and the surrounding area knew Barnes liked to write, they never suspected their lives were being recreated in a novel.
"I used to see her light burning upstairs until the wee hours of the morning," said Peggy Mauck, the wife of a sod farmer, who was Barnes' next-door neighbor. "I would be doing my books and I wondered what she was doing."
Joseph Rollins, the 74-year-old proprietor of Rollins General Store and a lifelong resident of Bristow, said Barnes once "warned me she was going to write something someday."
Although Bristow is called Forkville (population 20) in the book and the characters' real names have been changed, the novel is essentially an autobiographical account of Barnes' life as a farmer on a 112-acre spread.
More than a decade ago, Barnes, her former husband L. J. Dukes, a former chairman of the Prince William County Planning Commission, and their two young sons decided to escape their "plastic" existence in the suburbs and embark on a back-to-the-land experiment that was full of surprises.
Finding the farm, with its big white house, barn and picket fence was "the end of the rainbow, arrival at Oz and Camelot all rolled into one," Barnes wrote. The family whose lives had once revolved around Cub Scouts and cocktail parties soon found themselves confronting a series of daily crises that rural folk consider routine.
Barnes recounts a raft of humorous adventures in her 277-page book. There was the time the sheriff issued a warrant for the arrest of three cows who wandered onto a nearby airstrip; there was the first miserable summer cutting and baling hay with the "help" of city friends clad in Gucci loafers and halter tops; and their tribulations with Dooma Lee, a goat who ate the American flag.
An unabashed animal lover, Barnes devotes much of her book to the chickens, dogs, horses, cows and geese who were her constant companions.
"I had Aesop at my back door," she said. The book's unusual title comes from a lesson Barnes learned early on: When you spot a buzzard, it means an animal has died.
With her husband safely ensconced at his government job, to which he commuted 80 miles round-trip, Barnes tells how the responsibilities of the farm fell to her, a one-time Georgia debutante who knew more about bridge games than heifers.
"She was definitely a newcomer," said Mauck. "She didn't know anything when she came here." As Marvella in the book, Mauck and her Dalmatian dog Domino warrant a chapter, with Barnes describing how the dog's owners treated their pet in princely fashion, even buying him a car of his own in which to sleep.
With the help of people like Matthew (store owner Rollins), and Luther Stokes (Melvin Shiflett), Barnes tells how she slowly learned the tricks of running a farm.
"I helped her do everything," said Shiflett, a Haymarket, Va., farmer. "She always called me up when she was going to buy cattle."
The book shies away from controversy, with the harshest treatment given to a livestock dealer, who the author claims was trying to swindle her.
"I guess everyone around here is really tickled about the book," said Shiflett, 47, whose character is described in the book as a hard-working man with a "sunny disposition."
Sitting in his store decorated with old-fashioned cola signs and illuminated with a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, Rollins said he enjoyed the book. Nevertheless, he said, portions may have been exaggerated to make it more amusing.
Since leaving the Washington area more than five years ago, Barnes has been living in Atlanta and writing. But she says part of her heart is still in Prince William County.
"I miss my cows so bad," she said. "And Melvin (Shiflett) still has my horse. When I saw Sabre in December, he recognized my call."
Barnes recently returned to Prince William County where she saw old friends and talked to students at the Dean Middle School and Brentsville District High School.
Part of her reason for writing the book, she said, was to capture in print that time when "you could stand with one foot in two worlds." With suburbia encroaching on places like rural Prince William, it is becoming more difficult and prohibitively expensive to have a life that includes the city and the country, she said.
Rollins, who started his store in 1924, agrees that although change in Bristow seems to be slow, it is coming. Nevertheless, he said, "There's more and more traffic on the road and they want to close our post office."