Appalachia's Own Holden Caulfield Emerges in New Illustrated Novel

Jun 5, 2015

Deep in eastern Kentucky, Dawn Jewell is an angry fifteen year old who lives at the foot of Blue Bear Mountain. Her mother is addicted to pills and alcohol, and her father has died in a mining accident. Dawn lives with her grandmother, but that isn’t a normal life either because her grandmother has become swept up in an anti-mountaintop removal campaign. And Dawn isn’t sure how she feels about any of this.

“This is not a life that she would have chosen. But it becomes, what do you get to do when you don’t get to choose? What do you do when you don’t have a lot of choices," said Kentucky writer Robert Gipe. "She’s trying to do something that’s right, but I think that’s why she’s angry, right, it’s like, she doesn’t want to have to do this, why can’t I just be normal."

Dawn is a fictional character in Robert Gipe's debut novel, Trampoline. The book has dazzled Appalachian authors like Silas House and Ann Pancake.

Gipe created Dawn Jewell nine years ago after attending the Hindman Writer's Workshop. He decided to buy two notebooks and try to fill them with writing over a weekend. He holed away inside a hotel and filled those notebooks with sketches and ideas about Dawn.

Illustration from Trampoline
Credit Robert Gipe

“She’s not typical but she is typical of many young people who who are in the place I live now.”

Towards the beginning of Trampoline, Dawn finds herself speaking up against strip mining at a public hearing. For the remaining pages of the novel, she deals with her contradictory feelings about the attention people give her because of her words. Some people who work in the coal mines resent her, and they bully her for speaking out.

Illustration from Trampoline
Credit Robert Gipe

At points throughout Trampoline, Dawn is so angry, that she keeps running away and stealing cars and beating people up at school. But even she doesn’t understand why she’s so angry.

“If her default is just being aggravated, that she’s having to process all this, and she’s in that whole push pull of wanting somebody to talk to about it and just being resentful that one, you need somebody, and two, you’re afraid to rely on anybody. On some level you’re fearful of confiding in anybody. You want contradictory things in the same moment a lot of times,” said Gipe.

Illustration from Trampoline
Credit Robert Gipe

By day, Gipe directs the Appalachian Program at Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College in Cumberland, Kentucky, where he helps students record oral histories. He works with the students to then use these oral histories for inspirations in a series of plays, called Higher Ground.

Gipe decided he wanted to write a novel just after the first Higher Ground play launched in 2006. He writes by reading everything over and over out loud.

“There’s a joy that comes from the interaction of just telling stories to each other that still hasn’t been topped and still kind of persists on Facebook. We’re all just telling each other what happened that day. everybody still delights in somebody who's good at telling what happened."

Illustration from Trampoline
Credit Robert Gipe

Gipe says there are two more books coming after this one, featuring Dawn over the next ten years of her life.

Illustration from Trampoline
Credit Robert Gipe

But of course Dawn doesn’t know that. Like any 15 year old, Dawn thinks she has to figure everything out within the next couple of months. She’s working on it- aided by the soundtrack that comes to her by her crush, a radio DJ named Willett.

Willett plays bands like Velvet Underground and eighties hard-core, punk rock bands like Black Flag.

But Dawn Jewell doesn’t have a favorite song.

“I think that’s exactly right, she’ll name these songs, but she’s not telling you her favorite. Cause you’d try to mess it up for her, you’d steal her CD or something," said Gipe. "I think that’s a whole part of her defensiveness.”

Dawn's defiance of the world is beyond apathy; it’s a choice.”

“Exactly, it’s not apathy. It’s just like, you’re not gonna take anything else away from me.”

Trampoline is Robert Gipe’s first novel. Hi grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, and he moved to Kentucky in the 1980s. He’s worked as a pickle packer, a forklift driver, and as an educator and radio DJ with Appalshop and WMMT radio in Whitesburg KY.

Illustration from Trampoline
Credit Robert Gipe