Author Meredith Battle revives the layered history and traditions of the Blue Ridge’s forcibly displaced population in her recently published debut novel, “Go Down the Mountain.”
The 224-page book is believed to be the first fictionalized version based on the true story of the people whose land was taken by the state and federal governments in the 1930s to make way for Shenandoah National Park, formed from eight counties, including Greene, Madison and Rappahannock.
“I thought the most exciting part about writing this novel would be getting to hold the book in my hand, but it was actually hearing from descendants of the displaced,” said the 46-year-old writer, who lives in Loudoun County. “I have received so many messages thanking me for writing this story and photos of their family members from back in the 1930s before they left the park. It has been very moving.”
Though fictional, “Go Down the Mountain” is very much rooted in documented truth. It is set in mythical Lovingston Hollow, inspired by the real-life Corbin Hollow of Madison County. The book’s main character is a nervy mountain teen named Bee, whose father suddenly dies in a snake-charming accident, leaving her to live with an abusive mother.
In the book’s first chapter, “A Deal that Would Make the Devil Flinch,” they get a visit from a government agent intending to take their land.
“A state man called Rowler was the cause of it. He came by our place and said the state had given our land to Uncle Sam for a park. We were to be out in five months or be considered at odds with the law. Mama told him we’d sell. Our land was worth fifteen dollars an acre, she said. She made a big speech about how we wouldn’t take any less for it.
While she talked, Rowler looked me up and down and licked his lips like I was a slice of scrapple fresh from the frying pan. He was the kind of husky white man who had a layer of pasty fat on him from sitting on his ass in a desk chair, his cheeks flushed pink from sneaking sips of whiskey. His brown mustache twitched even when he wasn’t talking, until I thought it might jump off his face and scurry into a hole in the floorboards.
“He told Mama we wouldn’t get squat since Daddy’s people never filed papers with the county courthouse. I figured as much. Daddy always said the Livingstons didn’t need papers when a handshake and a man’s word would do. Seems like we didn’t need a deed when the whole goddamned Hollow was named for us,” Battle writes.
As a girl growing up in Fairfax, the author regularly visited Shenandoah NP and the mountains, calling it her “happy place.” Battle said she never once learned in school about the thousands of people who were displaced from its storied hollows or the hard path ahead they faced. As an adult, she came across stone walls and a bit of a chimney in her Shenandoah hikes.
“I was just shocked. I had no idea people had lived there. When I started to look into the story, I just couldn’t let it go,” Battle said.
The more she learned, the more she had to know. The author started digging into the history while living in California two years ago, when her husband was stationed there with the military. The research helped her feel closer to home and it was eye-opening, she said.
“The more I researched, the more I found these people could have been my people,” Battle said, mentioning her own father grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of Alabama. “They look like my dad’s family, they lived like his family, I felt like I knew them and understood their stories.”
Digging deeper, the author was shocked at the notion of how the government took their land or purchased it for meager Depression-era prices. Some of the poorest hollow folks, Battle recounted, were taken to an asylum in Luray, and in some cases, medically sterilized without their consent, according to filmmaker Robert Knox Robinson’s first-person interviews.
“When sociologists and journalists arrived to see the mountain people for themselves, they seemed singularly focused on the dirt-poor residents of Corbin Hollow,” she writes in the afterword. “In their book, “Hollow Folk,” sociologist Mandel Sherman and journalist Thomas Henry referred to ‘unlettered folk,’ living in ‘mud-plastered log cabins.’ They described them as ‘almost entirely cut off from the current of American life.’”
A letter from a visiting social worker was equally ill-informed, describing hollow folk as “steeped in ignorance” and “possessed of little or no ambition, little sense of citizenship, little comprehension of law, or respect for law, these people present a problem that demands and challenges the attention of thinking men and women.”
The misrepresentations helped the government market the proposed assimilation of these people into modern society as a humanitarian effort, Battle writes.
Rejecting this mischaracterization, the author got to know the real mountain people in her research, including listening to hours and hours of recorded interviews done in the 1970s through James Madison University. They talked about things like hog killing day and picking apples and all their traditions and way of life, Battle said.
“These people were intelligent, successful business people—some had large orchards earning thousands of dollars. They were tenacious people, beautiful storytellers with such a strong culture and families,” she said. “With this book, I hope I have been able to reclaim some of that for all of those who lost their homes.”
About 500 families—more than 2,000 people—were removed by the state of Virginia from counties spanning the future national park over a period of 10 years. In 2013, the Blue Ridge Heritage Project formed with a mission of establishing stone chimney monument sites in each of the counties where people were displaced. To date, seven have been established, including the first in Madison County in 2015.
“At the time the Shenandoah National Park was proposed in the 1920s, more than 3,000 people lived in this part of the Blue Ridge. The mountains were alive with small communities—houses, farms, churches, schools dotted the landscape. Some of the families had resided in these mountains for over a hundred years,” according to Blue Ridge Heritage Project.
Released last Tuesday through publisher Mascot Books, “Go Down the Mountain” is also available at Amazon.com.