Thursday, April 21, 2016

Running on Red Dog Road by Drema Hall Berkheimer

Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian ChildhoodRunning on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood by Drema Hall Berkheimer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gypsies, faith-healers, moonshiners, and snake handlers weave through Drema’s childhood in 1940s Appalachia after her father is killed in the coal mines, her mother goes off to work as a Rosie the Riveter, and she is left in the care of devout Pentecostal grandparents. Drema’s coming of age is colored by tent revivals with Grandpa, poetry-writing hobos, and traveling carnivals, and through it all, she serves witness to a multi-generational family of saints and sinners whose lives defy the stereotypes. 
This book makes me think of To Kill a Mockingbird. Or maybe I'm thinking of Tom Sawyer. Although these are vignettes of Appalachian life instead of a novel, the reader is carried into West Virginia life through a mischievous child's vivid memories of what was then "everyday" life. Drema's stories pull us into her world with turns of humor, poignancy, love and discovery.

Above all, I came away loving Grandma and Grandpa. Their common sense, resilience, ingenuity, and steadfast faith were the anchors of the Drema's life. They provide the anchors for the book too, and the underlying themes which make the book much more than simply the sum of its parts. One of my favorite chapters was when the gypsies came to town and Grandpa caught two of their children who'd been raiding the vegetable garden and henhouse.
The big boy said he was ten but his brother was only seven and wasn't allowed to be out at night. Grandpa took both boys by the hand and walked through the garden, the little one dragging a burlap bag behind.

"You tell me what you want, and I'll show you how to harvest so it won't damage the crop," Grandpa said.

Soon the boys filled the bag with potatoes and onions and carrots and ears of corn. Grandpa showed them how to tie their sack in the middle of a long pole so they could share the heavy load on the way home.

"A load is always lighter if it's shared. I want you to remember that. You want more, you knock and I'll give you what can be spared. I want to show you something else before you leave," he said, leading the boys over to where Queenie was tied.

He unhooked the leash, and Queenie, grateful for freedom, ran to the boys and started jumping up. Grandpa gave a hand signal and the dog sat down, watching Grandpa and waiting.

"This dog is part of our family, and I won't stand for her being tormented. She wants to be your friend. Go on over there now and get acquainted with her." ...

Every week or so after, always just before dawn, we heard a tapping at the front door, getting a little louder if Grandpa didn't hurry down. He pulled pants and suspenders over his long johns and went out to help his new friends fill their bag. Grandma followed him downstairs and put a pot of coffee on the stove. Sometimes she gave the boys a sack of oatmeal cookies or a pint of damson preserves, and a time or two she gave them a basket of eggs.

We never had another chicken disappear.
Running on Red Dog Road shows us a slice of life that doesn't exist any more, while reminding us that such a life is still right here to be grasped — in our families, friends, and the things we share along the way.

I received a Kindle version of this book from NetGalley. My opinion is my own. I'll be buying this in print for myself and as gifts. I know I'll be rereading this one.

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