Linda Scott DeRosier is a promising new southern voice by Rhonda Reeves
Photos by Peggy Blythe
Linda Scott DeRosier may live in Montana these days, but by quietly eavesdropping on her at a recent signing at Black Swan, her cadence and speech patterns quickly identify her as the Eastern Kentucky “creeker” she is proud to be.
She defines her terms in the first chapter of the book, “I want, at the outset, to differentiate between those Appalachians who grow up in the towns and those from rural areas – the creeks and the hollers. We tend to be lumped together by outsiders: demographers, bureaucrats who fund social programs, and academics who study the region…While the difference is pervasive, it goes largely unrecognized. In terms of expectations, a woman my age born in Paintsville, Kentucky – the county seat of my home county and the nearest town to Two-Mile – would be more likely to find similarity with a cohort born in Plainville, Wisconsin, or Carthage, Alabama – or any of a thousand little towns in the United States – than with me. This is a story from rural Appalachia… reported by a creeker.”
Surrounded by fans who have made the trip to see her (on the final Saturday of Keeneland, no less), DeRosier is warm and gregarious – and it’s easy to see what she means when she describes how rewarding it is that fellow natives have so quickly come to think of it as “their book.” Which of course, to some extent, it is.
After she has stayed to sign the last book (in a near sellout), she gathers up her gear to head down the street for a quick drink and an interview – leaving her a little over an hour to make it to her next engagement, which is an Appalachian evening at Memorial Hall.
Ed McClanahan (who’s half of the double bill at Memorial) stops by the bookstore for introductions and, after a little arm-twisting, is coerced into coming along for happy hour.
After the wine is ordered, McClanahan asks the new author, “do you do many readings?”
DeRosier quickly sets the tone by responding with a laugh and, “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m not a writer.”
He chuckles, “No, but you’re an honest woman though.” A moment later, it seems to occur to him that this might not have sounded especially flattering, and he corrects himself with, “I say that not having read your book.”
DeRosier obviously takes no umbrage to any of it. As Johnny Cash plays on the jukebox, she’s remarkably jovial as she recounts her recent author tour, including a gig on C-Span which was to have been a panel, but when someone got sick, she had to fill an hour. Directly before going on the air, a producer asked, “Now your book IS fiction isn’t it?” right about the time the light hit her face – at which point she was unable to read the few “extemporaneous notes” she had furiously scribbled down ahead of time, “because they were in pencil.” She tries to be a good sport, but admits, “the thought that that tape’ll last into eternity makes me sick.”
She also jokes that “it’s just a good thing nobody watches it.”
Her weekend in Kentucky was preceded by an academic presentation in Zanesville, and included a trip “home to the hills,” and a day in Lexington filled with three almost back-to-back engagements, and the loss of her American Express card.
(This prompts a reassurance that “drinks are on us,” at which point she elbows McClanahan and says, “Damn I was trying to be subtle.”)
An engaging storyteller, she wraps up the misadventures with the candid disclaimer, “Let me just say if you’ve got any sense at all, you’ll get the hell away from me. The apocalypse is nigh!”
At that moment, it’s easy to imagine her as the fifth-grader she describes in the book, who sent a note to the teacher saying “Kiss my ass!” and getting away with it.
Though she’s frank about her nervousness for the upcoming evening at Memorial Hall, she seems to almost be reassuring herself with the observation, “I teach 95 freshmen at 7:45 in the morning – if I can handle that room, I oughtta be all right in any room.”
Further elaborating on the transitions between her “day job” in academia and her new career as an author, she jokes, “Hey, I teach psychology and everyone I’ve ever known is so pathological, so it gives me endless material.”
Expanding on her chosen field, she explains, psychology is “about being trapped in the human condition,” but adds that we seem to be “try[ing] to find out more about less and less…”
As authors (or writers) go, DeRosier is probably as in tune with her feelings about the process as anyone ever is. She’s just more articulate than most in describing her fears and hopes.
“My fear in writing is that somebody will think ‘she’s got the answer’… but I’m probably wrong about that… as in all else.”
Her self-deprecating style doesn’t seem to come out of any insecurity or lack of confidence; she just doesn’t seem especially willing to assume the mantle of “expert” on anything other than her own perceptions.
She elaborates on this as she discusses her slight trepidation about how the book will be received – more by the folks “back home” than anyone at the New York Times.
Though the book is largely autobiographical, she adds by way of disclaimer, “I changed [a few] names when people might think I was throwin’ off on ’em.”
In reality, Creeker is a remarkably balanced account of “a woman’s journey,” as it carefully observes the cardinal rule of all the best memoirs-which is that no one in the book is subjected to any more scrutiny, harshness, or examination than the author is.
There is no better explanation for her story than the one she offers in the last chapter, “The life and living I have set down here is put to paper the way I saw it, as I lived it, and there are some who will recall it differently or will make sense of it in an altogether different way. But that’s their story and this is mine.”
In one passage, she writes of her first husband, “As I saw it, I had not married a high-school teacher; I had married a college professor-in-training. Once we were married, however, my young husband seemed to have forgotten all about the promise of graduate school and appeared quite content to teach at John’s Creek High School, work part-time at the A&P butcher shop, and spend every free moment on the golf course.”
Out of context, it doesn’t sound especially complimentary, but in context, she has preceded the passage with a far more revelatory confession about her own state of mind in those early years, “I was a married woman and had no need for further schooling. Inasmuch as I had gone to college only because I had no offers of marriage, now that I was married I saw no point in continuing.”
Later on, she arrived at the conclusion/epiphany that she was responsible for her happiness (as opposed to her husband), and writes, “Unfortunately this little bit of insight required serving my time during many such summers. I said I was a slow learner.”
Reflecting on her first marriage today, she is quick to qualify that it did not fail (a point the book reinforces). She says, “[We had the] best divorce on record. It’s a finished relationship – not a failed [one.] He’s all over this book… I loved him when I married him, when I divorced him… and I love him now.”
DeRosier’s mother – who’s described as a hypochondriac (but a hypochondriac who’s diagnosed with lupus and later breast cancer), is an equally important force in the book. The statement that, “Her life has stood as an example to me of what can happen when a woman steps away from the center of her life in order to make room for a man to occupy it” is telling for both its empathatic and cautionary aspects.
On initially hooking up with her longtime husband (when he was president of East Tennessee State University and she was their director of the Institute for Appalachian Affairs), DeRosier was resistant, if not ambivalent.
She writes engagingly of the first time he asked her out, “I had heard the rumors of his messy divorce, his drinking, the women he was supporting, his fancy lady friend from Washington, DC and worse. While I had seen no signs of any of this behavior, I did not want to get close enough to be forced to ignore such signs…I liked and admired this man, but I also loved my job and knew that nothing good could come of involving myself with him in any romantic way.”
When he finally wears her down, she walks away from him with her Grandma Emmy’s words to Grandpa Lige ringing in her head, “You don’t shit where you eat.”
Despite her pragmatic misgivings, it’s still working out nearly two decades later. She writes of their independence and interdependence, “Our jobs consume a great deal of our time, so you will not always find us right up next to each other. But after nearly twenty years together, I am still what Arthur tries to get away to, rather than what he tries to get away from…”
In a nice, unsentimental detail, she writes, “We do not have a loving sentiment engraved inside the gold rings we have worn for nearly two decades; our rings say no matter what, and that pretty much says it all.”
Now that Creeker is on the shelves, she seems more than a little surprised by all the attention, pro and con.
She acknowledges, “[It’s] hard to believe you put this much of yourself out there. I want everybody to buy it, but I’m not sure I want everybody to read it.” On the other hand, she admits that there are parts she wants everyone to read – taking some justifiable pleasure in the fact that her version of it all is now on the page.
Though the reviews and the response have been uniformly glowing, she observes that its success has brought out “the strangest things in people.”
For example, one person helpfully offered a resoundingly backhanded compliment after reading a gushing review in the daily paper. An acknowledgement of how positive it had been was closely followed by, “Now if you could just get that in the New York Times.”
She still strikes one as a person who always gets the last word, however.
She volunteers, “If you want to know what kind of controlling bitch I am, when I sign a book, I [have them] write down [their] name and address. I figure if you’re going to know this much about me, I’m going to know a little something about you.”
She mentions running into someone at an earlier signing who somewhat ominously intoned, “I know your first husband, and I’m from town.”
DeRosier managed to somehow restrain herself from responding with her usual candor. She notes with some pride, “I didn’t say ‘well pin a rose on your ass’ because…” she continues graciously, “well, she had just bought my book.”
The author seems to feel at home these days in Montana, where she currently resides and teaches. In a concluding passage of the book, she acknowledges, “Much of what I love about this place I never would have noticed had it not been for my growing up on Two-Mile. The house I live in now is nestled under four hundred feet of rock cliff…not much about the two-hundred-foot field of boulders that leads up to the rock face – or the cliff itself – has changed since man moved in. I probably spend more time than I ought to looking at those rocks, watching the morning sun gradually overtake the butte that lies to the west, and later watching the purple shadows of evening shift… At night those rocks turn white and seem to glow in the moonlight as I sit on my back porch and think about all the folks who have come and gone while those old rocks have stood guard… The ridges of home tell different tales from my rocks, but I would never have noticed one without the other.”
DeRosier has traveled an improbable – almost implausible path. Starting out as Linda Sue Preston on Two-Mile Creek – a little girl who couldn’t conceive of any greater autonomy than to obtain a husband and a trailer where they would raise their mythical family of “Tim, Kim, Kay, and Buddy.”
From there she progressed to Lee Scott, a teenage bride proud to be living in town (or “on the edge of it” anyway) and lucked into a first husband who encouraged both her education and success.
As a young mother, she still arrived at maternity rather late by Appalachian standards, and (progressing in her early career as a social security administrator) writes, “I believe it was important, both in my life and in the life of my son, that I had those first educational and career hurdles behind me and could focus on him. I may not have been the world’s best-prepared mother, but I never resented Brett Preston or thought of him as having kept me from some great destiny.” She adds more pragmatically, “I think I learned my mothering from those pigs I had taken care of all those years before, and I was able to enjoy the time I had for the mothering business.”
Of the summer of 67, in Corbin (which boasts an inexpensive country club, right on the highway), she writes vividly of their weekend pilgrimages to nearby golf tourneys, “I do not know about the other wives, but for me those endless hours when I sat starving and sober waiting for each flamboyantly dressed golfer, with the ubiquitous gin and tonic, to relive his day in the sun serve as a high-water mark for misery in my personal history. I never once said, ‘Could we just, for Godsake, eat, already?”
As she moved up the ladder of academia, she evolved into Linda Preston Scott – a professor who’s proud that “Since I gave up wifing and went to teaching, I have sent enough of my psychology majors to graduate school that I could have a nervous breakdown in almost any state of the union and have my mental health restored by a former student.”
And now she’s Linda Scott DeRosier – a woman who can look back on life as a tenured professor (twice), a mother, a grandmother – a woman who’s traveled the world and enjoyed a sabbatical which included a Harvard education. But the sense one gets meeting the author and reading the book is still that she’s barely gotten started.
Told the dates of the upcoming cover story, she laughs, and offers the disclaimer that there’s still sure to be somebody who’ll say, “Now if ONLY you could’ve gotten that in the Village Voice.”
DeRosier will be at the Kentucky Book Fair on Nov 20, 1999.
Creeker, A Woman’s Journey
by Linda Scott DeRosier
Linda Scott DeRosier is clearly a woman with an exceptionally lively voice who has many engaging stories to tell. Some of them are included in Creeker, A Woman’s Journey. Given that it spans 50+ years – and yet barely seems to make a dent in the material – there are probably more to come.
As a new author with stellar credentials as an academic, it’s entirely fitting that her book straddles (and blurs) the lines between psychological/ sociological treatise and memoir and autobiography.
“Transgendered people speak of having felt early on that they had been born into the wrong body. Although I cannot identify with that statement in terms of sexual orientation or proclivity, it accurately describes my feelings about my early life.”
Later on she muses about her mother, “Her life has stood as an example to me of what can happen when a woman steps away from the center of her life in order to make room for a man to occupy it.”
In addition to the psychological insights, the book is populated with a multitude of perfect moments. She recounts, “Daddy put a sink in our kitchen long before we had water in the house. We kept clean dishrags twisted to fit stuffed into the four holes on the back of the sink before we got hot and cold spigots and water to run through them.” It’s a lovely detail – one which shows skill and promise.
In another, she notes “Clearly, school systems did not worry too much over the psyches or self-esteem of the students back then. I am not sure exactly what happened to one of the boys but, the last I heard, the other one has made a pretty good living following in the footsteps of his daddy, making moonshine and bootlegging hard liquor. Having listened to him do his sums… during what was one of his last years of formal schooling makes me reluctant to purchase his product, since I cannot help but wonder how he figures the proportions he uses to make his ‘shine.”
The bottom line is, is Linda Scott DeRosier an author you want to take the time to get to know in this book?
Although much attention has been lavished on the childhood stories, she really comes alive and finds her narrative voice in the second half of the book. As her life opens up to the larger world, so do her stories. Her tone is more confident – the writing more self-assured.
The proselytizing she does about the value of learning and teaching is eloquent and beautiful. Truly coming of age in the 60s at the University of Kentucky is described in such fervent tones that it’s impossible not to believe. “Remember… that I come from fundamentalist country where the saved are called to witness to all who have not been saved so as to keep the latter from roasting in Hell forever. Well, I think that salvation business is what teaching is all about. If you don’t feel that passionately about it, that tells you the world would probably be better off if you just did not teach.”
The conflicts she writes about in her early 50s – namely returning to school at Harvard and trying to care for her dying parents from a distance, never to her satisfaction or her mother’s (noting that her mother “died mad” over it) – are movingly executed. Her frustration, her grief, and her guilt are all equally palpable in these passages.
When she writes of “consolidating” her identity, as she does in the chapter on “Culture and Cognition,” she’s done so as both an author and a woman, and the book is better for it. -RR
It appeared to me that, although it was seemly to attempt to highlight and maintain the culture of the region, that was a minor function in light of some very real regional problems that first needed to be addressed. In other words, I was willing to have festivals and fairs where folks could play their fiddles and eat soup beans if I could also work on the physical health and educational limitations of the area.
…[It infuriated me to see funding go to damned soup-bean festivals when half the teenage women in attendance were holding a baby with one hand and a cigarette in the other….]
It has been my experience that a number of the folks who come from the East to reach down to Appalachia’s economically and culturally impoverished population sometimes do more harm than good. They treat the natives as if money were the answer whatever the question.
If economic independence were the answer, then those folks from Appalachia who got rich with the coal boom would still be rich and their kids would be having a better life than their parents did…
One of the saddest scenarios is that of the hill folk who got rich on the coal boom. Five years before coal got hot, they were running around with the knees of their britches out. Then coal hit big, and with the coal money they bought new Cadillacs and built huge houses, furnishing them with giant-screen TV sets, gold leaf, and silk flowers and waterfalls in entryways.
They did not get their kids’ teeth fixed, and they didn’t send them on to school. Then coal went bust, and five years later many of the instant rich folk were again running around with the knees of their britches out.
-Linda Scott DeRosier, reflecting on her time as director of the Institute for Appalachian Affairs at East Tennessee State University
Women in Southern Culture Series
Creeker is the first book in the University Press of Kentucky’s ambitious new series, Women in Southern Culture.
Thanks to the efforts of Linda Scott DeRosier with Creeker, it is off to a promising start.
This book’s strong, compelling story is only marred by minimal flaws with voice and structure that could’ve been solved with more focused editing and vision-and it is to be hoped that these areas will be addressed as the series progresses. Because it’s an idea whose time has come.
Although women’s studies and women’s history have attained new popularity in recent years, chronicles of southern women – and the south in general- have still, largely, been beset by prevailing stereotypes.
Creeker more than lives up to the insights one would expect from someone who teaches psychology – and its occasional narrative stumbles do not rest on the shoulders of DeRosier, who freely admits “this writing business is new to me.”
It certainly isn’t new to the people who are responsible for shaping the series, however, and it’s their job to rid manuscripts of such occasional missteps as “I am not only from Appalachia; I am of Appalachia.”
The sentiment’s not wrong. It’s just not new. Other Eastern Kentucky idioms are repeated so that they eventually lose their color (and their meaning) – again, something that could’ve easily been identified and averted by the series’ creators.
Putting DeRosier in august company, this is the kind of problem encountered, (far more) widely, by Rick Bragg in the best-selling, All Over but the Shoutin’. But because “PULITZER PRIZE- winning author Rick Bragg” was tagged on to every review, signing, interview, and postcard, he was forgiven a multitude of sins. And it was a sword he was presumably allowed to wield over every proofreader who so much as scanned the copy.
There is, however, no sense of that kind of editorial ego at work in DeRosier’s book, only an occasional glimpse of inexperience.
Flannery O’Connor visited the question of voice (over and over) in Habit of Being (her volume of letters). As she wrote back and forth to fellow authors, she wrestled and agonized over how to preserve the wonderful idiom and dialect of her native Georgia, and reconcile her own rural roots and speech patterns with a narrator who did not intrude on the work as a “character.” It was ultimately poet Allen Tate (among others) who helped her distinguish between a language that was appropriate for the voices of her characters and their dialogue, and the more authoritative, even scholarly (though almost imperceptible) voice of the narrator.
O’Connor’s dilemma was clear – she didn’t want to “get above her raising” with a pseudointellectual voice that didn’t belong to her. Though she was highly educated, she never lost her own somewhat rural southern dialect when speaking, she just came to reserve it for her characters as opposed to her narrators when writing.
Without this critical delineation, transitions can be jarring and it’s easy to lose sight of who’s driving the book. (Often, of course, the narrator can be a character [see also Huck Finn] but this seems to work better in fiction than autobiography.)
The series is edited by Margaret Ripley Wolfe, a history professor at East Tennessee State University, and author of Daughters of Canaan: A Saga of Southern Women.
Wolfe writes, “For much too long, written accounts of the southern past were characterized by sexism, ethnocentricity, and classism. Chroniclers, both professional and amateur, had tended to focus on ‘dead white men,’ to emphasize the European experience and to reserve the past for the privileged.”
Whatever. (Also, not new.)
University Press has done good work with Appalachian studies in recent years (notably, Confronting Appalachian Stereotypes, Gurney Norman et al.) so it’s clear that they have access to the necessary talent for a project like this – and DeRosier was an excellent first choice.
A series such as this one by University Press – which fills both a niche and a void – will almost inevitably thrive and blossom with the benefit of a steady guiding vision.