Louise McNeill: “Gauley Mountain”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Every once in a long while, a book so special – yet seemingly so unknown – takes you by storm, and you find you want to tell the whole world about this gem.

Louise McNeill’s 1939 volume, Gauley Mountain, is just such a book.

A patchwork quilt of voices from the Gauley Mountain region of central West Virginia, the book of interrelated poems tells the story of a mountain community’s founding, rise, and ultimate demise.

As she grew up on Swago Farm in Pocahontas County (memorably brought to life in her poem “First Flight”), McNeill listened as her elders and neighbors told stories of the area’s settlement and of the people who inhabited the region.

Such stories inspired Gauley Mountain, which traces the history of the people who lived in the area, from the Shawnee and the early white settlers to railroad workers and immigrant laborers. Beginning in 1750 and ending in 1935, the book brings to life myriad periods in West Virginia’s history: the clashes between the original inhabitants of the land and the white pioneers who “discovered” their land, the Civil War, the “civilization” of the area with railroads, and the logging that would create jobs for a time but ultimately lead to the demise of the area.

If poetry is not your thing, don’t be put off by the fact that this entire volume is written in verse (81 poems in all!). The poems feature a variety of narrators – fictional and sometimes historical characters – who spin their yarns in the everyday, colloquial language of the mountains. And if you find the use of dialect off putting, no need to worry here – the speech and idioms of these storytellers ring true and clear.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Gauley Mountain is that Louise McNeill participated in the West Virginia Public Radio creation of a music and storytelling production that brings the book to life. Larry Groce, host of “Mountain Stage,” put the project together, and it just couldn’t be any better.

Join me this week on Pinterest as I pin images and resources related to Louise McNeill. Take a look around at all my boards – or go straight to “My Favorite Poems” board for Louise McNeill treats.

And don’t forget to leave a comment on this post! If you subscribe to the weekly StoryWeb email and leave a comment here, you’ll be entered into a monthly drawing to win a StoryWeb T-shirt.

Listen:Pull a chair up to the fire, and listen for a spell as “Mad Ann” Bailey tells her story (sung by my friend, Ginny Hawker).


Image credit: West Virginia Division of Culture and History