Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Return to Maggie Valley on Jessie's Mountain

Kerry Madden started the Weems Family on their way in Gentle's Holler, continued the story in Louisiana's Song, and revisits the Weems family of Maggie Valley, North Carolina in Jessie's Mountain. Madden's books are beautiful portraits of a simple life in the Smoky Mountains in the 1960s.

Although I have not read Gentle's Holler, I know that the Weems family is introduced. Tom Weems is a traveling musician working hard to make it big and support his family. Jessie Weems, ran off with Tom to get married young, grew up in a home where appearances mattered to her mother, and dreamed of a simpler life in the mountains with a bunch of kids, the older children Emmet, Becksie, Louisiana, and the story teller Olivia (Livy Two.) Then come the younger children, Myrtle Anne (Jitters), Gentle who is blind, Cyrus, and the twins, Tom-Bill and Appelonia. It makes you tired just thinking about it, doesn't it? But Madden does a masterful job of giving each character their own distinct personality so that the reader doesn't confuse one for another.

In the most recent installment, Jessie's Mountain, the Weems family continues surviving in the mountains of North Carolina. Their financial woes worsen, and now that Jessie's mother, Grandma Horace, has moved in, they have to put up with her bossy, pessimistic personality. Her main objective is to get the family out of the mountains and into the civilized society in Enka. She will stop at nothing to accomplish this. Grandma Horace presents Livy Two with the childhood diary of Jessie and encourages her to read it and share it with the other children so they can know their mother's past. Livy takes it as a sign to head to Nashville to audition for George Flowers, the music agent from Louisiana's Sky. Her younger sister Jitters tags along and when they finally reach Nashville they get turned down. The whole family left in Maggie Valley is in a panic wondering where Livy and Jitters have gone.

When the girls return home, it appears that Grandma Horace will get her wish, and the family will move to Enka where she can begin to "civilize her heathen grandchildren." On moving day when Jessie discovers that her mother has shared her personal journal with the children, she changes her mind and gets a job in the paper mill 30 minutes away and begins to get the family out of debt which will allow them to stay in their beloved mountain home. This also means that the oldest daughter, Becksie, will need to stop attending school to take care of her little brothers and sisters and her recovering father. Tom Weems is well on his way to recovering from a devastating car accident, but the doctors say it will be another year before he can work again. Livy begins to hatch a plan involving a vacant building in the nearby town, her teacher, and the musical talents of her entire family. If all goes well, her mother can quit working at the paper mill, the family will be out of debt, and her father will be able to perform his music again.

While all three books are about the Weems family, they can be read separately. In fact, I plan to go back and read Gentle's Holler for the background information. The books are a wonderful blend of family drama, simple mountain life, and gentle humor. After reading Jessie's Mountain, I can't help thinking that it is a cross between The Waltons, and The Von Trapp Family singers! Kerry Madden does a superb job of describing mountain life, using the language and characteristics to paint a picture of the simple happy life enjoyed by the Weems family. It is clear that she has done her research and the books have a realism that is both enjoyable, informative about life in the Smokies.

I will recommend the wonderful simple stories of mountain life to my fourth and fifth graders, but I think some good third grade readers would also be able to enjoy them. Madden hints at it in her acknowledgments, and I hope it's true, that there may be yet another visit to Maggie Valley.

All three books are reviewed at Jen Robinson's Bookpage.

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