What Pearl S. Buck, Blueberries, and Bovines Have In Common
This morning I woke up from a dream in which I was trying to find a colorful clause to go with the verb “giggled,” as in “like a little girl.”
That’s what happens when you go to a writing workshop taught by Jim Minick, author of several books, including The Blueberry Years. (While at Jim’s site, be sure to check out his wife Sarah’s baskets; they are exquisite!)
The workshop was held yesterday, in conjunction with Allegheny Echoes, at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace in Hillsboro, W.Va. And it was wonderful, educational and hopefully made all of us better, stronger writers.
“Giggled like a little girl” is a metaphor, but it’s also a cliché, which is a worn-out, overused metaphor. Good writing doesn’t have clichés. At least, it shouldn’t.
Now a confession: when Jeannette Walls looked at Sister of Silence, she kindly pointed out a few clichés—which I didn’t even realize I’d used. (That was offset by Walls saying the writing in a piece about my father’s ashes reminded her of Nora Ephron, may she rest in peace.)
So a workshop that focuses on how to write better by using strong metaphors, rather than weak clichés, is rather important. (Plus, I finally saw Buck’s birthplace, and finished reading The Good Earth while in Hillsboro, which seemed apropos.)
I also met Courtney Smith, a New Yorker who migrated here and whose friends ask why on earth she would want to live in West Virginia.
“Because when you pass someone in a car and they’re waving at you, all five fingers are engaged,” Smith, a Lewisburg resident, said.
Smith is the playwright who wrote Welcome Home, about Pearl Buck, Oscar Hammerstein, and James Michener. Together, they created the Welcome House Adoption Program for Asian children born to American servicemen.
There were several highlights during this trip into the bowels of West Virginia, where you could easily get lost in the mountains, if you’re not careful. One such highlight involved my overnight lodging, in a quaint little home perched on the side of one of those mountains in Richwood. Jolie and Jay Lewis live there with their two children.
I met Jolie at the West Virginia Writers’ Conference this year, and she encouraged me to attend the writing workshop. It seemed fitting that I do so, since I could also see the house where Buck was born. In addition to seeing the house, I learned that she would write (and pluck grapes) while sitting in the upstairs balcony, and that she won her Pulitzer for The Good Earth when she was 40, her Nobel when she was 46. (Just more proof that older is better!) I also learned she had a daughter who had to be institutionalized, and who could have been the basis for O-Lan and Wang Lung’s own daughter, known as “poor little fool.”
Tour guide Ruth Taylor didn’t tell our group this; I just surmised it as I reflected on the story while driving home. What she did tell us was that Buck wrote her short stories to help pay for her daughter’s care, which makes her no different than many writers I know, whose chief concern is just being able to pay the bills.
But back to the Lewis homestead. Light pollution doesn’t exist in their corner of the word: when I went to bed, I saw a sky full of stars. Neither does noise pollution: when I woke up, I was surrounded on all four sides by West Virginia forest, which effectively blocked any noise that might have come from nearby people or vehicles, and provided a serenity unseen by city dwellers such as myself. (Ironically, the Lewis property is in city limits and will be for sale soon, at quite a good price.)
I thought I would be back on the road much earlier than I was, but a stop at two local places slowed me down. The first was the Pretty Penny Café, which was once an old general store. The food is great, as is the wait staff. My waitress, Eva, who had also read (and loved) The Good Earth, gladly snapped a photo of me as I finished up the book.
Then I had to get one for the road—a coffee to keep me awake—and Jolie recommended the Dirt Bean in Marlinton. She said it was a coffee shop and a mountain bike shop. She didn’t tell me there was a swimming pool inside. Turns out the owner uses it and the massage table there in her other business, involving the healing arts. (There’s a wall separating the coffee customers from the bikers; it effectively hides the swimming pool from view. I wouldn’t have known about it, had I not needed to use the loo, located all the way in the back.)
To reach Hillsboro the day before, I drove down Interstate 79 and Route 19, then routes 39, 55 and finally, 219 south. For the return trip, intent on a visit with my mother, I opted to drive through Elkins for a change of scenery. (Driving on Rt. 219 and then Rt. 92 north, it’s fewer roads and miles, but not really any quicker.)
I was still in Barbour County, not having crossed the Preston County line, when I saw them in the distance and decided it might be best to slow down: bovines, big and black, lumbering precariously close to the road. I slowed enough to notice the open gate that enticed first one, then the others, to escape in pursuit of what was, undoubtedly to them, an exciting evening field trip.
I looked behind me as I passed and sure enough, the first one was in the road. The biggest problem was the upcoming knoll in the road, which would block them from view as easily as a solid wall hides a swimming pool from a barista. (I hope you’re proud of me, Jim!) So I pulled off the road at the very next house and sure enough, it was the home of the farmer whose cows had gotten loose.
After the initial shock of learning his runaway cows were content to stand smack dab in the middle of a long straight stretch of Rt. 92, and that the gate was open, the kind but harried farmer yelled for his wife, grabbed his britches from the porch and thanked me for stopping. Very pleasant fellow, britches or no. When I left him he was wearing his britches and running toward his cows.
Several minutes later I arrived in Independence. Mom was sitting in the back yard playing on her iPad and sipping a beer when I arrived. We sat and chatted for awhile, then we went inside so she could show me her new kitchen.
But first she had to take care of the dogs. There are five, and they are loud. So while we sat outside, they remained inside. She went to put them outside when we went in, leaving only the two true house dogs inside. One of the two is “Mama,” a four-year-old Puggle (pug and beagle) my mama rescued from the pound. She’s hefty, weighing in at 19 or 20 pounds. And she’s shown no inclination to bite before. (Maybe she didn’t like my perfume.)
We were entering the front door when Mama growled and jumped, high enough she could sink her canine teeth into the flesh above my right knee. On the bad side, it did break the skin. On the good side, Mom is in tight with the local animal control officer, so of course all Mama’s shots are in order.
I’d like to say the evening ended on a high note, but that’s as high as it got. Thus ended my mountain sojourn to Peal Buck country. If you haven’t been, you really should go. As Lewis said, although Buck only spent a few years in West Virginia, her Presbyterian missionary parents, Absalom and Caroline (Stulting) Sydenstricker, grew up here, and as their daughter, she was profoundly affected by their Appalachian heritage.
There are some people who would say the good folk of Appalachia are not so different from the poverty-stricken Chinese Buck wrote about. I am one of them.
PS: If you’re interested, a few pictures are posted at my Facebook page; I have yet to figure out how to insert them into my blog posts, without creating textual problems in response.
Disclaimer: Daleenberry.com is a Website that doubles as blog, which means it’s a combination of hard news, like the kind I reported on during my journalism days; commentary, which means my opinion—good, bad or indifferent—will be found sprinkled liberally throughout; and op-ed, which is a combination of facts and opinion. Enjoy!
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Daleen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Daleen Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change, for her second book, Lethal Silence, to be published sometime in 2012. She has expertise in overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment.
Berry speaks at conferences around the country, most recently at “The Many Faces of Domestic Violence,” the 18th Annual Conference of the Association of Batterers’ Intervention Programs in March 2012.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”
To read her award-winning memoir, Sister of Silence, in e-book format (or any other e-book), download a free app from Amazon for your phone, tablet or computer.
If you want to read more than 70 reviews, go to Amazon.
To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel.