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Tales from the Cloud Walking Country
Marie Campbell
University of Georgia Press, 270 pages

Tales from the Cloud Walking Country
Marie Campbell
Marie Campbell (1907- ) was a schoolteacher and folklorist who, between 1926 and 1934, lived, worked and traveled in the eastern Kentucky mountains. She began collecting Kentucky folklore in the summer of 1926 while working at the mountain settlement school on Caney Creek near current day Pippa Passes in Knott County, KY. In demand as a teacher from "the level country" she soon moved to the Letcher County community of Gander (now Carcassonne) where she stayed until 1934. By then, radio and University of Kentucky outposts were threatening the storytelling tradition among the mountain people. While in the 40s, she did publish a few of the stories she had collected from the master tale-tellers who "took a sight of pleasurement in tale-telling" in the Southern Literary Messenger, it was not until she was at the Indiana University in the fall of 1953 that she collected and published them in book form. She is also the author of Folks Do Get Born anecdotal accounts of African American granny-midwives in rural Georgia (1946), Cloud Walking (1942) reminiscences of her days teaching in the mountains of eastern Kentucky and A House with Stairs (1950).

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Sometimes it's good to act a bit of a Luddite, ignore the current fantasy factories and their multi-volume production lines and get back to the roots of a genre -- and oral storytellers are arguably just that. Oral storytellers have been around since humans developed a language, but except for the remotest regions of the Earth have largely disappeared in today's world. Marie Campbell, a young schoolteacher in the "hillbilly" regions of eastern Kentucky from 1928 to 1934, collected tales from what was likely the last generation of mountain storytellers, before radio, roads and university extension programs opened up the world to the people of this previously inaccessible region. The stories which Marie Campbell collected, while largely reworkings of European fairy tales and Irish mythology are, as such, not altogether original, but each storyteller has added his or her own interpretation, their own running commentary, and made them over into intensely personal stories.

What keeps this material interesting is that Campbell puts her folklorist insights and commentaries off in an appendix, avoids altering the storyteller's dialect or presentation style, thus allowing the storytellers to tell their tales without footnotes or other distractions. One can get the impression of sitting on the porch of a mountain cabin listening to the tale, surrounded by the household and local children rapt at the narrator's story. Campbell further personalizes the experience by giving lengthy introductions on each of the storytellers, their lives, how she came to meet them, their story-telling specialties, idiosyncrasies and sources.

The storytellers include:
Aunt Lisbeth Fields, an elderly lady conversant in much nature-lore, midwifery, and a teller of tales specializing in stories of golden things,
Big Nelt, a shoeless giant of a man and "the ballad-singingest man in the mountain country" who derived his tales from his Scottish grandparents and an Irish itinerant worker who had stayed with his family during his youth,
Uncle Tom Dixon, a specialist of tales of things in threes, who showed genuine concern for the people in his tales and the intricate details of the story,
Doc Roark, a mountain "doctor" who picked up a few stories on his travels through the mountains,
Uncle Blessing, a lay preacher who had picked up many moral tales from itinerant Baptist preachers, but who would balk at retelling certain portions in the presence of a lady, and
Sam Caudill, a young coal miner, very shy to tell his tales and in whose narrative style stories were cut down to their bare essentials, though he could easily fill in details omitted by other storytellers.

Certainly for folklorists or inhabitants of eastern Kentucky this book is a rich collection of storytelling handed down from European ancestors. For we current-day fantasy fans, it is a reminder that the genre wasn't always as corporate and dehumanized as it is in many cases today, but vibrant with diverse and enthusiastic voices which tied communities together and gave them a sense of continuity and history. Look at it this way, what would you rather do? Read a story to your kids from that marvelous book your grandmother gave you when you were ten, or sit them in front of the latest Disney video?

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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