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What the Novels by Mary Lee Settle Can Teach Us About "Pitch Points" of Change in Appalachia

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Roger May
Shirley Stennett (left) and Patty Thurmon (right) are sisters who own and operate The Haven, a rest home, in the Cedar Grove mansion, which was the Tompkins ancestral home.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of a series of novels called The Beulah Quintet.  The novels are by the late Mary Lee Settle, a writer who set out to capture moments in West Virginia history when a revolutionary change was at stake. Today's economic uncertainty here in Appalachia has many people wondering whether we are also living in the midst of a transition. 

Producer Catherine Moore was inspired to capture all this in an hour long radio documentary called Cedar Grove. Roxy Todd talked with Moore about her documentary:

Roxy Todd: "Catherine, you say in the documentary that Mary Lee Settle wrote about what she called "Pitch Points", these "moments in history before the possible had become possible, and the unthinkable historic fact." Do you feel like we're in a pitch point right now in West Virginia?"

 

Catherine Moore: "So she set each of her books in her Beulah Quintet in what she called "pitch points" or "seed points", which she thought of as moments right on the edge of a deep and profound societal change. Things like the lead up to the American Revolution, or the years right before the Civil War, and she really dove deep into those moments. She wanted to see the kinds of choices people were making and how those choices were impacting the future. So I don't know for sure that we are. Settle really stressed that the people who lived during these times, they didn't know that they were in these moments. We only know in hindsight."

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Kids Church members talk into Catherine Moore's recorder before services. Credit Roger May

Catherine Moore: "But I think that there's a good chance that we are. And there's just kind of a feeling in the air, right now, in Central Appalachia, that we have reached a moment, or a crossroads, where we're gonna have to choose a path for our future. So yeah when I discovered that aspect of Mary Lee Settle's work it really resonated with me, as we face the projected long term decline of coal. So that was a big inspiration for me to make this documentary. I wanted to explore that idea of what these times are like, and I do think that if we're going to survive here we're gonna have to look for new ways of being."

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Credit Roger May
Kanawha River

Roxy Todd: "And your documentary also introduces us to the work of fiction writer Mary Lee Settle. But she's a writer that not a lot of West Virginians know much about. Can you tell us a little more about who Mary Lee Settle was?"

Catherine Moore: "Mary Lee Settle was an amazing woman. She was born in Charleston in 1918. She was born into a really well to do family, so she was surrounded during her time growing up by the elites of the coal industry here in Appalachia. But she really rebelled from that upper crust society that she was born into. She was very much her own person."

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Mary Lee (center) and friends Nida Tomplin (left) and Nicky Gockley (right) bid farewell to Sweet Briar College in Virginia with beer and cigarettes. June 1938. Photo courtesy Nicolas Weathersbee

"Like they shipped her off to finishing school after high school to, you know, go find a guy to marry. But she wasn't having it. She dropped out. She moved to New York City. She tried to become an actress. She actually was one of the finalists to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Which, if you know the character Scarlett O'Hara, who's so feisty and fiery, that really reflects a lot of her personality traits. So in another very unexpected turn, she married an Englishman and joined the Women's Auxiliary Airforce, of the Royal Airforce, and she served in World War II as a signals operator, in London, and later as a broadcaster."

"And then, so it wasn't until after the war that she began to write novels in earnest. And she published the first volume of the Beulah Quintet in 1956, sixty years ago this year. She won the National Book Award in 1978. And she never lived in West Virginia for any length of time again, but all her life her work was very deeply rooted I think in the reality of life here."

You can listen to Cedar Grove Tuesday evening at 8:00 and again this Friday afternoon at 2:00 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The documentary is also featured in this weekend’s episode of Inside Appalachia.


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