This story of a day in the life of Joe Robert Kirkman, a North Carolina mountain schoolteacher, sly prankster, country philosopher, and family man, won the hearts of readers and reviewers across the country.
About the Author
Fred Chappell is the award-winning author of over twenty books of poetry and fiction. His previous novels include I Am One of You Forever and Look Back All the Green Valley. He teaches at the University of North Carolina in Grennsboro, where he lives with his wife Susan.
Read an Excerpt
Who can tell us what my father was doing at three o'clock in the morning of a balmy May Friday in 1946?
Why, he was climbing a medium-sized intricate poplar tree, hugging himself up the trunk and clambering among the limbs like a child dazed by dreams of pirate mizzenmasts. A muddy old totesack he clenched in his teeth, and a savor of the burlap was to remain in his mouth through all this long day to come. The four hounds leaping and yapping below had treed the fearful devil-possum and Joe Robert Kirkman was all fixed to capture the animal and take him home and put him to some private use not virtuous in the least.
This was no dignified impulse for a thirty-six-year-old country schoolteacher to act upon, a grown man with a family and serious responsibilities, but it was the sort of adventure he was always eagerly into, Satan take the world and all its prune-faced disapproval. And it was only impulse on his part, because the settled tradition among his houndy associates was never to lay eyes upon any game the dogs stirred up. The creatures in the trees and thickets and pungent dens were assigned to the dogs; the men's big task was to loll by the campfire and nurse their conversation.
Which is what they'd been doing, old Pauley Mackail and Wylie Hazel and Broomsedge Tommy Fowler, and my father familiar among them and just as easy as they, until the notion occurred that he could do something with that possum they could hear the dogs had treed, that he could pack it home and cause interesting events to take place in our family life. He could — well, he might pop it into the cookstove and when my grandmother went to bake her biscuits, there would be a live possum in the oven, and that would give her something to think about. He was just certain that his strict-souled mother-in-law needed something to think about.
But it went rudely against the grain of the Crazy Creek Wildlife Appreciation Committee — which was the resonant title the four men had given their brotherhood — to rise up and depart the cozy flames and plunge down the briary mountainside in the dark, risking precious life and limb, to maybe catch a glimpse of the fox's brush disappearing or the possum's tail as bald as a rat's.
No-no. Their time-honored habit was to sit by the fire and pass a moderation jug of moon and listen to the singing of the hounds and watch the red sparks rise among the silver stars and jaw jaw jaw.
You can just hear them running on.
Old Pauley Mackail blips a sizzle of tobacco juice into the fire and continues his account of the bravest bear dog he's ever known, which was old Setback Williams's little dog, part bull and part feist and all mean, "and wasn't no bigger than a middling-size wharf rat, swear he wasn't. Ole Setback would bring his other fine dogs out on the leash, but this littlun, Whizzer was what they called him, he'd bring along in his jacket pocket. They'd find the scent and he'd turn the others loose, then he'd fetch little Whizzer out of his pocket and set him on the ground like a windup toy. Caught us by surprise every time; that dog was too little to remember. Touch his feet to the ground and he was gone from sight, didn't waste no time trailing by scent. Like he was part bear hisself if he wasn't only so little, and already knowed where the bear was laying at. Plumb disdained any help from the other dogs, go off and bring that bear to bay all by his lonesome; and could do it too, him being so fierce. He was so mean he shone out in the dark, a red-orangy glimmer in a dark room. EyeGod, I've seen him just like that in a hunting cabin at night many's the time." Then he folds his arms across his chest and leans back, daring the others to question his veracity.
They're too canny for that, seasoned hands at the campfire powwow.
"Whizzer, you say?" Broomsedge Tommy is talking now in his halt high-pitched twang, shifting his signature sprig of broomsedge to the side of his mouth. He's got a mean dog that tops old Pauley's; Tommy will always have a topper, but hard for him to get a story told, the way he flounders about in petty detail and soon sinks over his head. "Tillyard Crowe had him a dog so mean it one time took a bite out of Santy Claus. His name was Whizzer, too. No wait now. Seems like he called him Wizard and not Whizzer. Because he had him this beagle bitch he called Witch, so he had him a Witch and a Wizard. Maybe that's wrong, though, now I think. Might be Tillyard was the one had him one dog called Woolybooger and another one called Tallywhacker —"
So Wylie Hazel interrupts to tell his mean dog story because it has become obvious that Broomsedge Tommy is never going to reach the fascinating part of his account, the morbid attack on Santa Claus. Wylie chronicles Swann Dillard's German shepherd that was so mean and strong that Swann taught it to bite his logging chains in two and would've saved hisself a bait of money on boltcutters and hacksaws except that the dog got in the habit of crawling under the trucks and nibbling through the tie-rods.
And so forth and so on till the end of time.
My father rarely competed in the rivalries of quaint drollery. Maybe he felt outclassed. He lay stretched full out, his large square fleshy face propped on the heels of his hands. A handsome face, by most account, his boyish dimples and the humor crinkles of his middle years showing the tender alloy of his character. His eyes were dark gray but yellowed now by the fire he peered into, staring into the heart of the blaze as if some secret nested there, some message to tell him why the world he lived in must be so poky, so matter-of-fact, so lacking in spice.
He might rouse now and tell a mean dog stretcher that would cover his friends with scarlet shame, but to what purpose? It conferred no grand and permanent distinction to tell a whopping lie on the side of a mountain in western North Carolina in the pitchdark. Derring-do was what was needed, some heroic feat that would encourage the spirits of hound dog men for generations to come.
Then they all fell silent to hear the hounds way off in the blackness. It sounded like they were down in a holler somewhere to the left, and they were excited. Joe Robert was no expert; he left the interpretation of these howls and barks to the others. He didn't own a hunting dog, and no longer even Queenie, our friendly collie who had worked the cattle and patrolled the barns. He was a member of the Committee only by courtesy. Hadn't paid his dues yet this year. It cost an annual five hundred dollars to belong to the Crazy Creek Wildlife Appreciation Committee, the money being refunded when a member sighted his first fox of the year. So they each reported spotting a fox while driving in to the first meeting. But my father had missed this initial get-together and was in arrears that amounted to about two months' worth of his school-teaching salary.
The music of the dogs was to him only cacophony, but the others subjected this racket to as full a commentary as ever a subtle monk wrung from the Book of Revelations.
"There he goes," said Wylie Hazel. "There's old Blackfoot in the lead."
"Lead your grandmaw," Broomsedge Tommy said. "I know that voice a hundred mile. That's my Stalker, just a-gaining on that fox."
"It ain't no fox," Pauley Mackail said, "and it ain't no Stalker. That's my Jollyboy on the scent of a coon. That ain't the way they sound out after a fox. Not high-pitched like that; fox runs em too hard."
"Now we're all wrong," Wylie said, "because Blackfoot has dropped off the lead and Greedygut has took it. Can't you hear how they've changed over?" Only Wylie had brought along two dogs this time, a distinct advantage for braggartry. He threw back his head now and gave out rending howls in imitation of his Greedygut.
They rattled on in this manner for a good long while because, after all, it was the chase that heaped glory on dog and master alike. Now it was that each man strove to elicit admiration for the courage and strategy and vocal accomplishment of his hound; yet each of them must speak as if to trees and dumb stones, each so fascinated with his own that he had no time even for charity toward other dogs. And since they never went to find out the truth, each felt justified in his own magisterial opinion.
The strict order of this ritual irritated my father, and he decided to poke a disorderly stick into the proceedings.
"Hush up, boys," he said. "Listen close now. Don't the dogs sound real different tonight?" They blinked. He'd been quiet so long they'd more or less forgotten him. He had no dog, no stake in the chase. Why was he talking at all?
"What you saying, Joe Robert?" Wylie Hazel asked.
"I say listen to them. Hear how excited they are?" "You expect them to be excited," old Pauley said, "on the scent of a coon."
"Fox," said Broomsedge Tommy Fowler.
"It's a different sound this time," my father said. "Listen close now."
Fresh volleys of pealing echoed out of the cove.
Broomsedge Tommy said, "They do sound a little different. They must be right on the heels of that fox."
"Coon," said old Pauley Mackail.
"Not but one time in my life," my father said, "did I ever hear hounds sing out like they're doing now. This was down east around White Lake and I was nothing but a shirttail kid out hunting with some colored fellows one night. And when they heard the hounds baying out the way they are right now, they just looked at one another and shook their heads. Said it wouldn't be but one thing."
They gaped at my father, gaunt mountain faces expectant and credulous. They tended to credit stories about faraway places because they'd never traveled anywhere, and they would credit stories about Negroes because they'd rarely seen any. Of course, it came to them that Negroes had to be crackerjack hunters, coming from Africa where there were hordes of animals that made nothing but sunrise picnics of human beings.
"What did they say it was?" Wylie Hazel asked.
"They said it couldn't be anything else but a devil-possum."
"Devil-possum. Way I understand it, this is a whole different brand from our regular possums. I never did comprehend it all because they said there was voodoo mixed up in it. These devil-possums came out of the bayous down in Louisiana. Now your Louisiana bayou possum is an ugly mean sucker to begin with and then they got interbred with some kind of little old Mexican swamp bear. So they're half-possum half-bear but also tangled up with voodoo magic some way or another. I don't know the details about that, whether these voodoo people worship them or eat them or what. Some kind of voodoo power, is all I know."
"I never heard of nothing like that," Wylie said. "It sounds mighty damn silly."
"They're still pretty rare," my father said. "Don't find them that often even down in Louisiana. They're starting to spread out, though. There was a piece in the newspaper a little while back about how they've been spotted in South Carolina and north Georgia."
That impressed them, the devil-possum in the papers. Old Pauley said he hadn't read about nothing like that, but they discounted his testimony because he'd never read a newspaper but one time and then he'd got the facts boozled up. Unless Canada really had declared war on Australia and modern history was keeping the fact secret.
"I ain't believing no devil-possum," Wylie said. "I ain't believing the first word."
"No hide off my ass what you don't believe," my father said. "I'm just telling you what-all I've heard."
"Well, if there was some kind of demon-possum like that — I mean, just supposing — what would he do to the dogs?"
Did they hear now an undertone of real apprehension in Wylie's question?
"It wouldn't be pretty," my father said. "As soon as those fellows knew what it was, they called their dogs back."
"Aw, Wylie," Pauley Mackail said, "this is just some big jacktale Joe Robert is telling us."
"Yeah, I know. Only old Blackfoot and Greedygut are the best hunting dogs that ever lived in the world."
"They ain't so almighty much," Broomsedge Tommy said. "But if anything was to happen to Stalker, I believe it would be the death of me."
My father said, "All I can tell you is that this devil-possum has no more fear of making a dog's close acquaintance than a flea does."
"Well, tell us what he looks like," Wylie said. "I can't seem to get no clear picture."
"All I've got to go by is what other folks tell me, people who've seen it," my father said. "And they report that he's about three to four times bigger than your regular possum and of a light tan color with black spots."
"Like a black and tan hound?" Broomsedge Tommy asked.
"Huh-uh. Round spots, round as polka dots. And he's strong. Long claws, so he can zip to the top of a tree before you can say your proper name. Teeth. Teeth as long as a bear's, that's the Mexican in him. But the strangest thing is, he's got a face mighty like a human face. I reckon this is the voodoo part, that he's got a face like a little old man."
"An old man's face?" Wylie said.
"With whiskers and a big bristly mustache."
"A big mustache?"
"And sideburns," my father said. He was getting into the swing of it now. "Frizzy muttonchop sideburns."
"Let me see if I've got it straight what this thing looks like," Wylie Hazel said. "This here possum is black and yellow polka-dotted with long ugly claws and teeth and has got a face like a little old man with whiskers and mustaches and muttonchop sideburns. Now are there any other distinctive markings? Because I wouldn't want to go out hunting and shoot a sheep or chicken by mistake."
"Well, maybe the eyes."
"What about the eyes?"
"They say they're a bright yellow-green and they flame out at you in the dark."
"All right," Wylie said. "I will add on to your description yellow eyes that shine like car headlights. That ought to stop me from plugging my mother-in-law by mistake. Because the rest of it matches up with her pretty well."
"I'm just saying what I've been told."
Old Pauley broke in. "You think that's what the dogs have got treed? Because they've got something up in the air. Just listen to them."
"I hope they ain't treed my mother-in-law," Wylie said. "She'll tear em apart."
Along the spiky ridges, under the cool stars, rang out the mournful quavers and semiquavers and sobbing caesuras to proclaim that the pursued, whatever species it belonged to, had found a tree to settle in like a fairytale princess in a tower, while the pursuers like plaintive troubadours serenaded from below.
"See there?" my father said. "You never heard them sound like that before."
"I don't hear them sound no different," Wylie said.
"Seems like they do sound a little different," Tommy said. He spat a frazzle of broomsedge at the fire, took another toothpick-sized joint of it from his overalls bib, and fitted it into the corner of his mouth.
Wylie snorted. "You'd believe any damn thing, Tommy. I wisht I was a gold mine salesman to come knocking on your door."
"All I can tell you is what I know from a long time ago," my father said.
A long time ago. He was choosing phrases to work upon their imaginations. He was perfectly satisfied it was a possum the dogs had treed down there in the holler — or a coon. What difference did it make? And rather than loll here and listen to yammer about whether the dogs had treed a coon or a possum and which one of the dogs had made scent first and which one was leading the pack and whether the refuge tree was a persimmon or a chestnut, rather than all this useless heated filibuster, why not go down yonder and collar that possum and take him home? There'd be lots of situations where a possum would come in handy. Seemed like his family — his tartly tolerant wife, his strict religious mother-in-law, his weirdly studious son, his sunny blond four-year-old daughter — needed a jolt now and then, needed jarring up a bit. Otherwise they'd get set in their ways and Joe Robert Kirkman would become bored and then if he wasn't careful, he'd be finding mischief to get into.
And so he said: "One way to settle it. Let's go see what they've got treed."
Wylie Hazel's mouth dropped in astonishment. He couldn't seem to close it.
"Hike down into the holler and have a look," my father said.
Old Pauley Mackail stared at him so hard his eyes crossed.
"Take us a little look-see," my father said. "Where's the harm in that?"
Tommy clutched at his throat. In sudden overwhelming amazement, he had sucked down his sprig of broom-sedge.
"I've got this certain hunch it's a devil-possum," my father said. "I'll wager five hundred dollars it's him sitting up there in the tree."
"Then you'd owe the Appreciation Committee an even thousand," Wylie said. "And no way can you see your first fox of the year two times."
"It's a mighty strong hunch I've got."
"Well hell then, let's go," Wylie said. "Tommy, fetch that lantern there so we can see. Pauley, you bring along your .45 pistol. We will probably want to shoot this booger-coon and get it stuffed for our great-grandchildren to wonder at."
Old Pauley and Tommy said all right and the four men set off.
Excerpted from "Brighten The Corner Where You Are"
Copyright © 1989 Fred Chappell.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1: The Devil-Possum,
2: Morning Ablutions,
3: Medal of Honor,
4: General Science,
5: The Rehearsal,
6: The Memorial,
9: Prometheus Unbound,
Readers across the country praise Fred Chappell and Brighten the Corner,
Where You Are,
Reading Group Guide
This story of a day in the life of Joe Robert Kirkman, a North Carolina mountain schoolteacher, sly prankster, country philosopher, and family man, won the hearts of readers and reviewers across the country.
1. Chappell chooses to start his story with an initiation. Into what realms is the boy, Jess, being initiated by his father?
2. At what point in the novel do you begin to get a specific sense of placethe mountainsSouthern AppalachiaHaywood County?
3. After being introduced to the hero-philosopher-clown in the first chapter, you may be so in love with him that you want to see him keep clowning forever. Or there may be non-comic attitudes that you wish he'd demonstrate. If so, what? See if any of these other attitudes are fulfilled later in the book.
4. "My father had declared eternal war on custom," the narrator says. What are other principles that guide Joe Robert's life? Society features so many customs, declaring war on them yields a wealth of good plot lines. Do other principles create as many interesting situations?
5. What do you make of Jess, the young narrator, knowing his father's private thoughts and out-of-earshot words?
6. Joe Robert believes that "God was something of a windbag, continually talking to mankind, but pitching His discourse beyond our abbreviated human capacities. His method was the optimistic, and God lost most of his audience." (page 34) Satire is a rather gentle form of persuasion. What is Chappell trying to persuade you of here? How familiar are you with satire? Has the use of it declined?
7. Jess says that he never waked ever in his life, but dreamed of his father as a mythological hero. Someday, Jess thought, he'd carry his father as Aeneas did his (in Virgil's Roman epic) "to the shores of the future." Are you familiar with the reference to the Aenead? Do you read the classics? If not, are you inspired to do so? Are the heroes of past ages relevant today?
8. What kind of role model is Joe Robert for his son? Is Jess going to be handicapped in any way because of his upbringing? What is his father's fate, do you think? (The answers to these questions are answered in the fourth book of the Kirkman quarter, Look Back All the Green Valley.)
9. In how many ways is storytelling important to our lives? Here's an instance. While Virg Campbell and Joe Robert are making efforts to revive a drowning girl, Virg starts telling a silly story about a rabbit-hunting tourist. "It seemed a fitting time for a windy," Joe Robert thinks. How so? Does storytelling act like magic? How so in your actual experience?
10. Are there any stories in Brighten the Corner Where You Are that you would be inclined to retell to friends?
11. If someone were to say you were acting "Kirkmanic," what would they mean?
12. Brighten the Corner contains references to other volumes in Chappell's Kirkman quartetfor example, the Bound for Hell Grocery and Dry Goods Store (p. 42), Johnson Gibbs, the war casualty (p. 60), Joe Robert's courtship with Cora (p. 96); Joe Robert's mother-in-law, as sharp as Clarence Darrow (p. 97); and more. Are you eager to read the other volumes? Are you caught up with the Kirkman family?
13. Compare Joe Robert to the Music Man. See page 52, where he says, "We got real trouble here."
14. Look back at question 3, which considers Joe Robert's potential for non-comic attitudes. Now look at the story about Lewis Dorson, the quiet mountain boy who came home a decorated soldier and ended up killing himself in Detroit. What are the themes that elicit Joe Robert's piety?
15. What are the virtues of a traditional, rural mountain family? (See page 62.)
16. Pruitt Dorson suspects that it was his son's book learning and not just the war that had hurt his son. Pruitt himself only reads the Bible. Maybe education "was not the cure but the disease," Kirkman concedes. Do you agree?
17. What does Brighten the Corner have to say about the teaching professionabout teacher morale (p. 51); the need for hand-on learning and good equipment (p. 68); memory aids (p. 74); the conflict between telling the truth and maintaining job security (pp. 91, 95); role-playing (p. 152); and Socratic dialogue (p. 159)?
18. Joe Robert, teaching science, takes the issue of Creationism head on. (p. 69) Would he get in trouble in certain schools for what he says?
19. Do you practice self-effacement? Can it be practiced in such a way that you can be taken seriously and yet not be considered superior? When and how does Kirkman do it?
20. In the primarily White mountain population of Brighten the Corner, Chappell gets to portray one African-American, Jubal Henry, the wise school custodian. Although one portrait can never stand for an entire race, how does Jubal reflect on African-Americans?
21. Does Joe Robert meet his match or more than his match in Jubal Henry? Joe Robert has his truthstretchers and diplomatic banter. What does Jubal have? What does he mean when he tells Joe Robert, "I am foretelling there is a hubcap on the table with cigar butts in it"; and then that the little plywood partition in the boiler room holds up the whole school. (p. 127)
22. How does the goal of being a wise man or woman fare among other goals in society? Are there such people as wise ones? Is Joe Robert one? Is it proper for a wise man to be foolish and even dense sometimes? See page 128.
23. Why does the Bacchus story take the turn it does at the endwhen the goat talks and makes an amorous remark to Joe Robert?
24. As the "Socrates" chapter asks, "Is it of supreme importance" that the students of Tipton "should be conversant with contemporary scientific thought?" (p. 161) Does the truthfulness of science depend upon current (and changeable) trends in thinking? (p. 163) Might Darwin's theory of evolution one day be overturned? (p. 164) Does Scotty-as-Socrates misstate Socrates' opinion about Joe Robert's teaching methods. Do Joe Robert and Scotty make missteps in their discussion?
25. Why did Joe Robert misjudge the reactions of the school board so badly?
26. The governor's representative is happy to have Joe Robert's feat of saving a drowning girl "rise in status" in newspaper reportsfor political reasons. (p. 190) To what extent are we all tall tale tellers? Where and when do we draw the line between telling things exactly as they are and making changes to improve the story? When is such story-making a "lie" and when enhanced truth?
27. What kind of a process does Joe Robert go through at the end? He quits his job, becomes disillusioned with Socrates, dismisses the honor bestowed on him by the governor, and learns of his favorite student's abdication of an academic career. Then he decides he's going to be a farmer and deal directly with the world. What's up? How do you feel about all this?
28. Why does Chappell make Janie Forbes one of the most prominent characters?
29. What is the "joke" that Joe Robert thinks he tells his wife at the end?
30. The last line in Brighten the Corner refers to Jess's mother, who, lying next to her husband in bed, dreams her own dreams, "pursuing her own exotic life." (p. 212) Why does Chappell end his book this way? Are there alternate endings, or is this the perfect one?
31. Is Joe Robert Kirkman a throwback? Who are the throwback characters in our world? Are they mainly romantic and appealing characters, or are they potentially effective ones?
32. What does Joe Robert mean by calling himself a "liar"? His friends call him that, too. It seems to be a compliment. Would you ever call yourself that? What does Joe Robert achieve by using the word?
33. What does Southern Appalachian literature and Fred Chappell in particular have to show the world about storytelling?