I became interested in Horace Kephart when I watched the PBS special “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” by Ken Burns. As someone who explored the Smoky Mountains in great detail and was instrumental in its foundation as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Horace Kephart was fascinating to me.
The author of numerous non-fiction articles and books, it was a surprise for Kephart’s great grand-daughter to find a lost fiction manuscript in among his things. A labor of love on her part, she worked with the Great Smoky Mountains Association to get the book published in 2009. Kephart’s love of the Appalachians, its people and history are evident in this novel.
The main character, John Cabarrus, is definitely modeled after Kephart. His knowledge of wilderness survival, camping, and flora and fauna of the mountains are an excellent example of what Kephart might have been like. Tom and Sylvia Burbank and their toddler Margaret are perfect examples of a rural mountain family in the early 20th century. Ten miles from the nearest town of Kittua, North Carolina (known as Bryson City today), the road to the Burbank homesead is rough and difficult. So, they must manage on their own. They grow their own food and hunt for what they need.
Marian Wentworth, a young collegiate who seeks rare plants for her studies provides an interesting counterpart for John. The story tells of Cabarrus’ journey to the land of his childhood and the valuable minerals he seeks beneath it, in hopes that he might strike it rich. In the way is W. G. Matlock, who although he owns the property on which Cabarrus prospects, he does not own the mineral rights.
The Lumbo family, “poor white trash” even by mountain standards, Cherokee ex-chief Degataga and his half-sister, Myra Swimming-Deer liven the story and give more insight into those inhabiting the mountains.
The dialogue in Smoky Mountain Magic is completely in the rural mountain dialect of the Smokies. It’s a little hard to decipher at first, but gets easier as the book progresses.
I loved the book and look forward to reading Our Southern Highlanders (1913) and Camping and Woodcraft (1906), as well. For anyone interested in the Smokies and its people – this book is for you!