My Old True Love
Shelia Kay Adams, 2004
Sheila Kay Adams brings us a novel inspired by the ballads of the English, Scottish, and Irish. These long, sad stories of heartbreak and betrayal, violence and love, have been sung for generations by the descendents of those who settled the Appalachian mountains in the 1700s. As they raised their children, they taught them first to sing, for the songs told the children everything they needed to know about life.
So it was with the Stanton family living in Marshall, North Carolina, during the 1800s. Even Larkin Stanton, just a baby when his parents die and he's taken in by his cousin Arty, starts humming before he starts talking. As he grows up, he hungrily learns every song he can, and goes head-to-head with his cousin Hackley for the best voice, and, of course, the best attentions of the women. It's not long before the two boys find themselves pursuing the affections of the same lovely girl, Mary, who eventually chooses Hackley for her husband.
But, just as in the most tragic ballads, there is no stowing away of emotions. And when Hackley leaves his wife under his cousin's care in the midst of the Civil War, Larkin finds himself drawn back to the woman who's held his heart for years. What he does about that love defies all his learning of family and loyalty and reminds us that those mournful ballads didn't just come from the imagination, but from the imperfections of the heart. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Madison County, North Carolina, USA
• Currently—lives in Madison County, North Carolina
Sheila Kay Adams is an acclaimed performer of Appalachian ballads passed down for seven generations through her own ancestors. She has been a featured performer in several documentary films, served as Technical Director for the film Songcatcher, contributed to The Last of the Mohicans, and was cohost and coproducer of Public Radio's Over Home. She performs year-round at major festivals throughout the United States, as well as in the U.K. She has three children and lives with her husband, Jim Taylor, in Madison County, North Carolina, where she was born. (From the publisher.)
Celebrated Appalachian folk singer Sheila Kay Adams distinguishes an otherwise tired Civil War love story with the tragic ballads and backwoods rhythm passed down through generations of her family in her first novel, My Old True Love. Hackley and Larkin are rivalrous cousins raised as brothers in the North Carolina mountains and bred on the songs of their ancestors. Predictably, they both fall for Mary, a singular Appalachian beauty. Hackley soon wins her affections and marries, only to be whisked away by the Confederate draft. Left in Larkin's care, Mary swoons for the other cousin, inviting tragedy into their country lives.
Loosely based on the author's family history, a fine first novel about doomed love and hardscrabble lives in a 19th-century Appalachian mountain community. Narrator Arty Norton begins her tale in 1845 with her widowed aunt's death in childbirth. The extended family takes in orphaned Larkin; nine-year-old Arty becomes his beloved surrogate mother, her scapegrace younger brother Hackley his closest friend. Later, the two young men fall in love with Mary Chandler, who marries Hackley but fails to stop his womanizing. Larkin is still yearning for her when the inhabitants of Sodom, North Carolina, are swept up in the Civil War, scathingly depicted by Arty as a brutal conflict with no meaning for the poor people who are forced to fight and suffer in it anyway. Hackley dies, and Mary marries Larkin, but the wounds of the past cannot be healed so easily. Adams (stories: Come Go Home with Me, 1995) is a well-known performer of the traditional ballads brought by settlers from the British Isles to Appalachia, and her text is permeated with the same tragic vision and keening rhythms. She has an equally faultless ear for the cadences of ordinary folks' speech, particularly as voiced by her narrator. In contrast to her religious Mommie (their contentious yet loving relationship is one of the many richly nuanced portrayals here), Arty is salty, sexy, and sharp-tongued. Marriage at 14 and a subsequent flock of babies don't smooth her edges or dull her intelligence as she observes the intertwined lives of her kin and neighbors. Looking back from the vantage point of 1919 ("I am older than God's dog"), she remembers hunger and hardship, good deeds and bad, jealousy and hatred but most of all love, "the greatest of all...it ain't always been easy, but Lord has it been worth it." Deeply satisfying storytelling propelled by the desires of full-bodied, prickly characters, set against a landscape rendered in all its beauty and harshness.
In tones as warm and rich as the sun shinging on his Appalachian home, Larkin Stanton sings the country ballads of his heritage. Even before he could talk, Larkin would hum along with his Granny as she warbled. And though orphaned at birth, Larkin was never alone—born as he was into the clannish, protective Scottish community of the North Carolina mountains in the 1840s and placed under the care of his silver-tongued cousin Arty.
As he grows, Larkin feeds on the subtleties of singing. When he goes head-to-head with his cousin Hackley, their ballad contests produce songs that bring a lump to the throat. And as the boys mature, their competition spreads to the wooing of Mary, the prettiest girl around. But shortly after Hackley wins her hand, he must fight in the Civil War. Left behind, Larkin finds himself inexorably drawn to the woman he has always loved. And what he does next will live on in the mournful ballads of his hills forever.
1. In My Old True Love, Sheila Kay Adams uses the dialect of her Appalachian home. Did Arty's dialect and informal way of speaking pull you into the story immediately or did you find it distracting? How would the telling of this story been different if Arty's speech had been more conventional?
2. What does the first paragraph tell you about the narrator? What does it reveal about Arty's personality?
3. How did Arty know her aunt had died? Did you find the exchange between Arty and the midwife believable? What symbolic
meaning does swapping the buckets have?
4. The oral tradition of ballad singing is an important and integral part of My Old True Love. It makes an early appearance during the deathbed scene when Arty says, "Crazy-like, the words to an old love song run through my head." Over twenty-five songs were written in part or in entirety throughout the book. Did the songs seem a natural occurrence and appropriately placed? How do they provide insight into Arty's culture? How did this tradition influence Hackley and Larkin's relationship?
5. Why do you think Granny allowed Arty to take over Larkin's care? What did Arty mean when she said, "From the day he was
born, my arms had carried him, but that very day was when my heart claimed him for my own"?
6. Did you find the custom of "hanging" someone with a name odd? What customs do you practice in your own family that outsiders might think odd?
7. Why do you think so many of the important scenes in My Old True Love take place on the porch? What are some examples?
8. Arty relates many fond memories of childhood. When do you think Arty realizes she has moved beyond these carefree days? Do you think she wishes she had chosen a different path than that of wife and mother? Explain.
9. Why did Larkin live with Zeke and Arty only for a short time? What happened between Larkin and Hackley when Larkin moved back in with Granny? Do you think this would've happened if Larkin had continued to live with Arty? How would this have changed the story?
10. What does Arty do that reveals her superstitious nature? Where else in the book is this revealed? Do you think Arty may be clairvoyant and have what mountain people refer to as "second sight"? Explain.
11. Did the bawdy humor of the women surprise you? The story is peopled with flawed but strong women. Did you most identify with one particular woman? If you could choose to be like one of the women, which would you choose? Why?
12. When Arty says Hackley might have been little but had that way of moving that women just loved, what kind of picture does that statement paint of him in your mind? Do her expressions and sayings help you visualize other characters in the story? Give some examples.
13. What does Granny mean when she tells Larkin, "You got nothing to lay forever out next to, nothing to measure it against"? Death has always been an accepted part of life in the Appalachian culture and is an important aspect of the book. How does this compare with our attitudes today? What are Arty's religious beliefs, and how do they differ from her mother and those of Granny?
14. How does Arty describe Mary, and when does she realize the extent of Larkin's feelings for her? Is there any indication that Mary is encouraging Larkin? Explain.
15. There are so many complex relationships in the book that resolve in one way or another. Do you think there was a relationship between Larkin and Julie and how (or was it) ever resolved?
16. There are so many opportunities for Arty to tell Mary about Hackley's womanizing. Why do you think she chooses not to tell and advises Larkin to do the same? How might the story have been different if Arty had told Mary about Hackley and Maggie at the political gathering on Shelton Laurel? What would've changed had Larkin told her?
17. A large part of the population in western North Carolina was pro-Union during the Civil War. Often it was truly brother against
brother. What were Arty's feelings about the war? Was she ever in support of either side? Explain.
18. When Zeke leaves for the war, Arty is expecting her seventh child. Why do you think she struggled to hide how she really felt from Zeke? What does this say about Arty? How do the war years change Arty?
19. Arty often says there are situations in our lives that change us forever. In your opinion, what single event in the story brings about a profound change in Arty? Explain your choice.
20. How does Arty cope with the deepening relationship between Larkin and Mary? What decision does she finally make? How does this affect the outcome of the story?
21. Arty has such conflicted feelings for her brother, Hackley. She obviously loves him but strongly disapproves of his behavior. Give some examples of this. How does she react to his death?
22. Why do you think Larkin avoids Arty when he returns from the war? When he tells her he's no longer a boy, she responds with, "Don't wind up being a stupid man." Why does she say this? What happens after their conversation?
23. After Mary and Larkin marry, Mary tells Arty that she feels that she has somehow betrayed Hackley. Arty replies, "Life is not for the dead and gone. It is just for the living." After the birth of Roxyann, Arty is troubled by Larkin's behavior at the spring. How are the two connected? Explain.
24. How does Arty try to intervene as Larkin changes? What does she mean when she says that Larkin's sickness was "the greater sick of his soul?" What happens that seems to cure this? What was Larkin searching for?
25. How did Mary change when Larkin left? Why wouldn't she share Larkin's letters with Arty? How does Arty's final letter from
Larkin set the scene for Larkin's homecoming?
26. Were you surprised by Larkin's story about Hackley's death, or did you suspect it all along? Did you believe Larkin when he said he loved Hackley? What were Arty's feelings?
27. Did your opinion of Mary change in the last few pages of the book? Explain.
28. Arty's growth and development were irrevocably connected to nature and the land. How does the summing up of her life support this? Do you think the last sentence is an appropriate ending for the book?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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