“The Hurting Part: Evolution of an American Play”
Author: Silas House
Publisher: Motes Books
Price: $12.00 (Paperback)
Readers love a literary origin story. Did the gigantic Thomas Wolfe really write using the top of the refrigerator for a desk? Did Erskine Caldwell really buy 30-day Greyhound passes and write and live in the back of the bus?
Silas House, born and bred Kentuckian, was a rural mail carrier in the ’90s, and as he drove along the winding roads of Eastern Kentucky wrote his first novel, “Clay’s Quilt” (2001), a few words at a time on a pad on the seat next to him.
That novel was followed by three more, “A Parchment of Leaves,” “The Coal Tattoo” and “Eli the Good,” and House became a best-seller and in the top rank of Southern novelists.
Then he seemed to go quiet. Although I was aware he had become an activist, fighting mountaintop removal, I had not read a novel of his since 2009. But he was writing and publishing all that time in different genres. I just didn’t know it.
In 2011 there was an epistolary novel, “Same Sun Here,” with Neela Vaswani, for middle grade readers, in which an Indian immigrant girl living in New York City’s Chinatown corresponds with a Kentucky coal miner’s son. The two youngsters, seemingly so different, find they have a great deal in common.
And he has begun writing plays: in 2009 “Long Time Travelling,” then “This Is My Heart for You,” 2012, about gay rights and hate crime in a small Southern town.
A third play, ‘‘The Hurting Part,” House has published in a most unusual format.
The volume begins with an essay about his family. Two aunts had moved to Dayton, Ohio. Their husbands were mechanics; the women worked in a diner.
House then describes how he based a short story, reproduced here, on his aunts' experience in the form of a letter home from 24-year-old Thelma Jean Smallwood, in Dayton at Christmas time and hating it. Her husband drinks too much; they can’t save money; they’re not better off financially, the Yankees make fun of her accent, and city snow is dirty, not pretty like in the holler.
“I’m so homesick I believe I’m going to die,” she says.
Finally, we see the material reworked into a three-act play, same title, set two days before Christmas in 1962.
The two couples on stage, Thelma and Simeon, Patty and Darrell, have lives more complicated than Thelma Jean’s. One couple has left behind a daughter with granny. They miss her painfully. The other lost a daughter to drowning in the Kentucky creek back home.
All four yearn to return. They miss family and the home place terribly. The women are ready to pack up, but the men are prideful, can’t admit failure, and don’t want to work in the coal mines where a number of Simeon’s friends were killed in a cave-in.
J. D. Vance in his “Hillbilly Elegy” reports on the children and grandchildren of Kentucky families in Ohio, the ones who stayed. The passage of another 50 years saw some prosperity in the mills, and then economic decline.
And now, in 2018 alcohol, drugs, and despair seem to have overcome a good percentage of them.
People have always migrated in search of work and better material lives for themselves and their children, whether leaving Ireland or Greece and crossing the ocean forever, or moving from state to state inside the U.S. Is it finally worth it, to lose close touch with family, traditions, the culture that warms us? Or is more lost than gained?
Some will choose adventure and possibility; some will choose the known. Thelma Jean wants to go home.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.