Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Story by Jim Hamilton - The Last Entry is painted in the woodland tones of western North Carolina’s rural mountains—a cultural crossroads of post-modern Appalachia where old-time traditions clash with a rapidly-changing world. I wove my expertise of natural history into a story and characters which reflect the region’s burgeoning diversity, its struggles with poverty, and a black-market economy still tied to its land and forests. While originally from a small town in east central Alabama, I've been hunting, planting, transplanting, consuming, and teaching about ginseng for the last 10 years in the mountains of western North Carolina. The Last Entry is really a story about brotherhood, loss, and redemption. However, the narrative is entwined with the culture and tradition of ginseng hunting, which is still alive and well today in the Blue Ridge Mountains where the story is set.
I have had the pleasure of working over the years with many landowners and ginseng diggers, growers, and scientists who are working to preserve this sacred medicinal plant—for conservation and for profit. I didn’t grow up in Appalachia, where folks still hunt herbs to make ends meet and to carry on family traditions. However, the ‘sengers here in western North Carolina, where I’ve called home now for close to 20 years, graciously let me into their world, and their stories helped weave this one.
As an Extension agent in a small mountain county, I get to meet a lot of really interesting folks. A few years ago, I took a call from a homeowner with some property who had questions about setting out some ginseng on his land. Those are my favorite kinds of calls. This particular landowner happened to be Glenn A. Bruce, one of several talented writers and artists who have made the North Carolina mountains their home. Along with his many novels and short stories, he also writes screenplays. He wrote the movie, Kickboxer in the late eighties, which I watched no less than a dozen times in my formative years as a teenage martial-arts-flicks-aficionado. I mentioned to Glenn that there had never been a movie made incorporating ginseng in any meaningful way—which is sort of surprising, considering the history, economy, and culture of this cryptic, long-lived plant which is exported to Asia to the tune of tens of millions of dollars each year and consumed regularly by over a billion people. I remember him saying: “Well, if you come up with a story, let me know.”
I jotted down the ‘foreword’ and the bare bones of the storyline that night in 2015 after two bourbons and a soak in the hot tub. My wife, Silvi, thought it was pretty good. Later that week, I worked on it some more and gave it to Glenn. To my welcome surprise, he was intrigued, and after a couple months of conversations and idea swapping on additional characters and plot lines, he cranked out a screenplay. In my enthusiasm and complete naivety as to ‘how the industry works,’ I emailed it to Anson Mount (the star of AMCs Hell on Wheels and other movies), who I had met as an undergrad at Sewanee…you know, because Hollywood movie-stars that you knew back in college are chomping at the bit to jump on randomly emailed screenplays J Anson replied back: “Do a novel first and see if it gets legs.” So, I asked Glenn if he’d help me with the nuances of fiction-writing, and he did. Since most of my career has been spent writing technical and/or educational science pieces, he really helped me with crafting dialogue…which really doesn't exist in academic writing…and emphasized the ‘show not tell’ golden rule of creative writing. I’m a teacher, so I had to train myself to not be too ‘teachy.’ I think I pulled it off. Coming from a science and technical writing background, I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to write fiction.....you want a result, you make it up!! Granted, though, the base of peer review in this industry can be just as harsh if you don’t get it “RIGHT.”
A year after typing “The End” the first of many times, I met Shari Smith of Working Title Farm, a small publisher based here in Boone. She had just published a collection of short stories by Radney Foster (Grammy nominated Nashville singer/songwriter), and was hosting a reading and book signing at one of the local venues. Of course, I went. As a DJ back in high school at a small A.M. radio station, Radney Foster was the first country artist whose music really migrated me to the genre—before then, I was a Prince and U2 and Guns N Roses teenager. So, I got to hear Radney play acoustic versions of a few of my favorites, and I pitched the novel to Shari. After a couple of meetings and a reading at a gathering with other authors, she decided to publish it and we were off to the races.
While the novel is based on character types, places, and stories that I’ve absorbed while living and working in Boone, in The Last Entry I chose not to use specific town names or even create a fictional name of the town (or collection of places, really) in which the story is set, for some of the probably misguided fears that I might get something “wrong.” Not being from the mountains made me more cautious. Hell, I’m still worried about it. Ole J.D. Vance continues to feel the heat from Hillbilly Elegy, and he grew up in Appalachia, but I’m pretty sure he’s skipping with Ron Howard all the way to the bank on that deal.
Of course, authenticity matters with any genre or story. As an author, your goal is to get it right. For Appalachia, the place, and the nature of the place (literally nature) as much or more so than the people, is especially important. The place is what makes the mountains so unique. Its deep forests have captured the souls of poets, authors, and explorers with its mystique for centuries. The best fiction set in Appalachia captures that mystique. And it’s a mystique that lends itself to the easy stereotypes....many true and damn entertaining (although most not quite to the level captured in fiction), but the 4 Ms of “hillbilly noir” are definitely there: meth, marijuana, moonshine, and murder. They're there. Day to day you don't see it, but they're there. Under the surface. In the trailers just a few blocks away from the touristy-main street of that cute little mountain town with its coffee shops, the General Store carrying the full line of Patagonia sweaters, and the antique markets where you can buy the “Paddle Harder, I hear Banjo Music” bumper stickers. The other stuff ain’t that far away….But it’s the place surrounding the interaction of those 4Ms that makes it even more mysterious, more harsh. More brutal. And more beautiful.
Ginseng is another one of those “under the surface” cultural elements of the mountains that is woven into the place and the environment. The best ginseng, exported to Asia via what appears to outsiders as a romanticized black market industry, comes out of those deepest dark hollers. From characters who, it’s true, fit those stereotypes of hard and worn mountain folks who dabble in those 4-Ms. In early 2014 a series of TV shows began hitting the airwaves on the History Channel and NatGeo: with great names like Appalachian Outlaws, Smokey Mountain Money, Filthy Riches, Hillbilly Blood…..all of them rubbish. Entertaining as hell, but rubbish. The idea I had for the story came from this…a need to sort of set the record straight on the authenticity of this amazing forest medicinal plant with over 300 years of history that is as much an engrained element of “Appalachia” as banjos & moonshine.
As a forester and someone who has been working with folks in the mountains who still cultivate and hunt ginseng, I’ve had the opportunity to get in the deep woods with some old mountain folk, who let me tag along to hunt it with them. When the idea for the story finally jumped out and hit me, I thought, you know, ginseng, with its harvest, culture, traditions, history, markets…that’s something that hasn’t been truly explored in fiction and that I knew I could write with authenticity.
So, in part, The Last Entry is an homage to the ginseng subculture of the Appalachians which spreads far and wide. Ginseng is dug from Pennsylvania to the northern Alabama mountains. I narrowed it down to North Carolina, whose mountains I’m most familiar. To this day, folks in the mountains take to the woods the first of September to hunt this plant. As much out of tradition as for profit. Grandfathers still take their grandsons and granddaughters ginseng hunting just as they take them deer hunting. Shady characters who may not be gainfully employed in any other industry get their wives and girlfriends to drop them off along the Blue Ridge Parkway onto public land or land fenced off by vacation-home owners to get picked up later, to avoid the law (there are rules) to dig herbs to make ends meet. Ginseng still pays for new shoes for the kids at the beginning of the school year and to make sure there are gifts under the Christmas tree.
My hope, for the general reader…the person from the city or town who isn’t from the region, is that along with the human drama between its characters and the story itself, that they learn something about this understated, cryptic, and beautiful plant, and the forests and mountains that have entwined it with the culture of its people for over 300 years. I’m an educator, so I snuck in as many teaching moments on growing Christmas trees and ginseng as I could along with the storytelling.
And my hope, especially for readers who come or came from Appalachia, who grew up with ginseng as just one of those things they “did,” who may have moved off the mountain or moved away from their families' traditions, are reunited if only for a moment with the magic of the place in which their destiny of birthright rooted them to, and to ‘reconnect’ perhaps with some of the ‘characters’ they grew up with who still hunt ginseng come September.
Jim Hamilton is the County Extension Director in Watauga County. He holds a PhD in Forestry from North Carolina (NC) State and is an adjunct professor at Appalachian State University. Before settling in Boone, NC. Jim was a forestry professor, a Peace Corps Volunteer, an environmental consultant, an A.M. country music DJ, and a volunteer fireman. While he's written the requisite number of academic articles published in unreadable journals to warrant his credentials, this is his first fiction novel.
Jim will be one of eight featured authors at the Women's National Book Association-Charlotte Bibliofeast Book and Author Event, a must-attend literary event for all those who enjoy reading, writing and networking with authors and WNBA members. The event is open to the public. Tickets are $55.00 for members, $70.00 for non-members. Tickets include a buffet dinner, dessert, pre-dinner cocktail party, and book signings. Books will be available for purchase. For more information, and to purchase tickets, please go to wnba-charlotte.org/bibliofeast2019.