Over the course of this summer, thousands of tourists will visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina. Drawn by the scenic vistas and 800+ miles of hiking trails, they will likely never wonder what was there before the park. Generations ago these hills were home, first to Native Americans, and, later, settlers attracted by the abundant resources. They raised families, gained and lost, and passed their land on to their heirs. So it went until late 1928, when the U.S. Park Service began buying land to establish the first National Park in the eastern United States.
Cataloochee begins in 1928 with a murder, then goes back in time to the end of the Civil War, when Ezra Banks first leaves his father’s North Carolina farm. The chapters consist of chronological, interconnecting, short stories, each an homage to the landscape, the people, and the traditions of the Appalachians. The characters are authentic, some good and some bad, but in their daily lives they demonstrate the many ways one can live with purpose and commitment to one’s family. As time progresses, so does the realization that soon there will be a choice: uproot or stay put.
Eventually the story catches up to the beginning. I was left wanting by this change of focus. While Caldwell ties up threads from the first chapter, he leaves other plot threads open and unresolved. Regardless, Cataloochee deserves praise for paying tribute to those communities lost in the name of progress.