By Rob Neufeld
Oct. 24, 2003
Two years ago, upon learning that Charles Price, author of award-winning Clay County-based novels, was working on a book
that would incorporate the voice of a mythic bear, I thought, "Wonderful - and risky."
Now, here's the judgment: he has succeeded. "Where the Water-Dogs Laughed" (derived from the Cherokee name for Tusquittee
Bald) delivers mythological reality with contemporary relevance.
The risky part of Price's endeavor, we discover, has turned out to be something different: the ambitiousness of his themes.
Price interweaves a few great themes, each of which could inspire a classic.
The most original theme has to do with the bear - Yan- e'gwa, to use its Cherokee name. Mortified by the progress of mine-digging
and woods clearing in the Tusquittee area, Yan-e'gwa chooses to counter bear tradition and allow his humanness to express
itself. This means going to war against "the Ancestors" to shock them into restoring their ancient covenant of kinship with
Kinship relates to the second great theme - the role that blood - or genetics - plays in destiny. Four major characters
wrestle with this idea. Hamby, the mixed-blood hero of Price's previous novel, "The Cock's Spur," shares with the bear a resentment
toward humans, who have overlooked the humanity of those whom they've vanquished.
Tainted heritage weakens 16-year-old Will Price, whose adoptive father asserts that his biological father's character flaws
have made him unworthy of the girl he loves. Eugenics is the byword of G.G.M. Weatherby, the lumber tycoon who has come to
Nantahala Valley for its good wood and pure Anglo stock.
"The old settler strain is in decline," Weatherby tells his well-bred daughter, Cassandra. "But it will not be improved
by mixing its blood with that of mongrel nations. No, we must seek elsewhere for the wherewithal to restore the purity of
our race. We must look here, to the mountain South."
Cassandra falls in love with her father's hand-picked, crude specimen of Anglo-Saxon superiority, Absalom Middleton, the
naturally virtuous son of an abusive, hard- luck farmer. Genetics turns out to be a double-edged sword for Absalom. His warping
represents the only weakness in Price's plot, caused probably by the lack of space to properly develop that twist.
In about 300 pages, "Where the Water-Dogs Laughed" flexes like "Moby Dick." In fact, it consciously evokes "Moby Dick,"
introducing the third great theme in Price's novel: prideful man's obsession with nature's power. Absalom, the only Middleton
child to have been fully schooled, names his horse Pequod. He compares Weatherby, Yan-e'gwa's nemesis, to Captain Ahab.
You will not be confused by the multiplicity of Price's storylines. They do not clutter the landscape, but populate it
with an adept mixture of lumberjack realism and good will. Mostly, the landscape overplays the dramatic details with its constant
tone - a kind of choral background that is related to the romanticism, nature-religion, Christian themes and outcast-exalting
prose of William Faulkner.
Will Price asserts the religiosity of nature when he tells himself that "while the world was without pity, every day it
held up a face of beauty for a person to see if he wanted to. And that beauty was greater than the world's evil. And if you
let it inside you, it was stronger than the bad and could defeat it."
The flip side of Will's hopefulness calls forth equally rich prose. When Cassandra recognizes how her doting father has
been altered by ego-undermining setbacks, she notes, "The confident figure who till now had always relished a jousting of
ideas, who'd love to argue every contentious point - that strong sarcastic scornful and humorous man - had utterly gone; and
in his place was this glum unbending ruin, this shade cored with a bolt of iron that spoke horrors in a reedy hush."
To use an in-many-ways inappropriate analogy, the choral nature of "Where the Water-Dogs Laughed" is like that of Steven
Spielberg's movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Everything heads toward a mystical resolution, and description and
reflection ride on a current of awe.
Price's novel's brilliant particularity - a lot of research and native knowledge went into his scenes and portraits - sets
his book apart from the purely tone-driven "Close Encounters." But moviemakers should be turning their heads. Visually, musically,
and dramatically, "Where the Water-Dogs Laughed" would be a smash. I just don't know how they'd cast Cattywampus Dog, the
cur whose encounter with a bear had rearranged his bones so that he walked sideways.
How close to having composed a literary classic is Price? A classic, in my view, needs to have a little more of a life
of its own, needs to dictate its progress to its writer and yet have all its surprises reinforce the overall picture in ways
that are both comprehensible and too deep for full comprehension. The prose in such a novel is continually playful and as
varied as a Shakespeare play.
It is right, though, to speak of Price's work in the context of literary classics. Starting with "Hiwassee," he has been
figuring out how to encompass the region's history in real and immortal characters. Rob Neufeld writes about books for the
Citizen-Times. His "Choice Books" column runs in the Sunday Arts Living section. Contact him at 768-BOOK or RNeufeld@charter.net.
November 2, 2003
WHERE THE WATER DOGS LAUGHED.
By Charles F. Price.
High Country Publishers.
298 pages. $24.95.
By Hunter James
In mountain-solitude Burnsville, novelist Charles F. Price turns out one splendid work of fiction after another, combining
family history with extensive historical insight to produce stories that have yet to garner the public attention that they
From the critics and the literary community as a whole, he has indeed got his fair share of acclaim. His first novel, Hiwassee,
received excellent reviews. His second, Freedom's Altar, won the 1999 Sir Walter Raleigh Award, the highest accolade a North
Carolina novelist can receive. His third, The Cock's Spur, piled up a whole host of awards and got him named Story Teller
of the Year by Independent Publisher magazine. Even so, he still needs to be more widely read.
With his latest work, Price has brought us from the Civil War and Reconstruction into the Progressive era, the age of Teddy
Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and other social uplifters. For the white Southerner, it was a time to strip freedmen of the rights
they thought they had won at the end of the Civil War - at least, so it was said at the time, until they were able to stand
on their own. For some Northerners, like Price's George Weatherby, a millionaire logging entrepreneur busy denuding the Carolina
mountains of its best timber, it was also a time to save the white Southerner from himself.
Weatherby, in other words, has convinced himself that it is his sacred duty to ferret out the most promising of the Anglo-Saxon
breed and raise them to the moral and social level dictated by their Aryan blood. Actually, during this period there were
few if any Anglo-Saxons in Western Carolina. The area was settled almost exclusively by Celts: Scots, Scots-Irish, Welsh,
others. But this is Weatherby's mistake, not the author's.
Weatherby hits upon one of these young men, Absalom Middleton by name, and puts him in charge of his sawmill operation.
"I regard Absalom as an extraordinary type," Weatherby tells his sister. "But he is also a primitive; he is in an absolute
state of nature. Like all his kind he is raw, unfinished. I have taken it as my task to shape him, smooth him, make him into
what he can be."
When Weatherby's daughter Cassandra, a student at elitist Swarthmore College, pays her father a visit and takes a fancy
to Absalom, she finds herself on the first train back north. After all, as Weatherby has said, Absalom is not finished goods
and will never be fit to indulge himself with the likes of Cassandra.
Price's latest work brilliantly mines the legends and history of the Southern mountains, much as his others have done,
and this may be his most successful work to date. Certainly it is his most audacious. The title stems from an ancient Cherokee
myth in which a hunter crossing Tusquittee Bald saw two waterdogs (salamanders) walking together on their hind legs until
they came to a pond that had dried up after a prolonged drought. As the hunter listened, one said to the other, "Where's the
water? I'm so thirsty that my gills are hanging down," and then both waterdogs had a hearty laugh. Where the Water-Dogs Laughed
is also what the Cherokees have for ages called the white man's far less imaginatively named Tusquittee Bald.
Price, a former reporter for the Greensboro News & Record, recounts a tale that brings to life many of the characters
in his previous books. This time, however, they share space with Yan-e'gwa, a giant mountain bear whom the author endows with
reason and whose destiny, the bear believes, is to fulfill a covenant established in Cherokee lore at a time when bears and
men were brothers and companions.
Yan-e'gwa has his own ideas about the future of the Southern Mountains and broods constantly on the devilment being worked
by Weatherby and others who know and care nothing for the legendary contract between man and beast that Price has raised to
the level of credibility - no mean feat to be sure. By destroying the forests, Yan-e'gwa believes, men are not only violating
a sacred tradition but also have placed the entire world in deadly peril. And why, he wonders ruefully, have his fellow bears
abandoned their sacred mission? There is a bit of Moby Dick's Captain Ahab in Weatherby - his great obsession is to kill the
bear - but he only gets himself knocked rudely about for his trouble.
It is up to another character from Price's previous books to take a hand in resolving this conflict. This is the cantakerous
Hamby McFee, half white, half black, yet belonging in neither world and resenting both. Confronting Yan-e'gwa, McFee unexpectedly
finds his own redemption from a lifetime of bitterness.
Price's book can be read as entertainment or as history or as both. This work, like his others, begs comparison with Cold
Mountain, which won for North Carolina author Charles Frazier the National Book Award and got him an $8 million advance for
his second novel, which has yet to appear. It appears to me that there is more real "story" in each of Price's novels than
in Frazier's first work. This book is an ambitious undertaking worthy of a Faulkner, and it belongs not only on the shelves
of those who love our Western mountains, but also in every college classroom that wishes to tell the true story of a very
important and often ignored aspect of our history. It seldom, if ever, has been told so well.
Hunter James is a writer and reviewer who lives in Winston-Salem. He is a former writer for the Journal and other newspapers
in the Southeast.
AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLES F. PRICE
THE VILLAGE IDIOT
Charles F. Price is a Southern Literary figure who breaks the mold. In spite of the fact that the earlier books in his
Hiwassee series have won all sorts of literary awards, he remains a non-conformist who writes from both the historical record
and a rich (and sometimes slightly twisted) imagination.
The Village Idiot was privileged to obtain a review copy of the final Hiwassee book, Where the
Water-Dogs Laughed, or The Story of the Great Bear, just released by High Country Publishers, and to beard the
author in his den on a mountainside near Burnsville, NC.
IDIOT: I've just finished reading Where the Water-Dogs Laughed, and I must say you write really vivid descriptions
and interesting characters. And you have worked out a very powerful spiritual and environmental theme. I would highly recommend
this book as a worthy read. But I have to tell you, I found much of it really gruesome and ugly.
PRICE: I see. How so?
IDIOT: Certainly. In one passage, a character's beloved mother is described as a "bony, listless hag with dead eyes, ruined
by work and childbearing. She smelled of snuff and dried hog fat."
IDIOT: Well, that's pretty grim and dismal, isn't it?
PRICE: Seems to me you're reading selectively. You yourself just said the woman's son loves her deeply. If you'd read out
the whole passage and not just the part you did, you'll see that he loves her because she's sacrificed her own childhood love
of books and learning so that he can go to mission school and be educated. She's worked herself nearly to death for his sake.
She looks like she does because of her sacrifice for him. And he's grateful and proud of her and even introduces her to the
woman he loves, in spite of her appearance, in spite of the possibility that her appearance might repel his very refined and
proper lady. What's grim and gruesome about that? The message is about the mother's selfless love and the son's gratitude.
Love costs something in the real world, you know.
IDIOT: Of course this character and his lady love don't exactly ride off into the sunset together. I mean, when her father
separates them, Absalom takes a pretty violent revenge.
PRICE: Well, that's life. Really, this book wasn't written as a fantasy romance.
IDIOT: Another thing I questioned was the constant repetition of racial slurs. Don't readers find that offensive?
PRICE: I daresay the character being called those things found them offensive too.
IDIOT: But that character "who's of mixed racial heritage" uses those same slurs himself. And the way you render his dialect
. . . I suspect many black readers would be offended by that.
PRICE: We're dealing with a very complex character here. He's not necessarily what he seems to be. That too is something
often found in real life, in case you haven't noticed. He's never been educated, he was a slave in his youth, he's extremely
angry at being of mixed race and being scorned by both the black and white communities, he's angry at the injustice of the
world and he expresses that anger through a deliberately offensive way of speaking and behaving. That's the way he's been
treated by racists of both colors and he's learned to respond in kind. He uses his dialect as a defensive weapon; he uses
the racial slurs because that's the language that expresses how he feels. It also happens to be the way most people black
and white alike expressed themselves about race in the late 19th century. Yet it's clear in the book that all his crudeness
conceals a great good heart, and that he has a store of gentleness and love in him that he's learned is wasted on humans.
So he gives it to dumb animals. If you'll notice, there's evidence of that all through the book his kindness to the beasts
and in fact it becomes the dominant theme toward the end. He finds his redemption in the end through that.
IDIOT: But in this age of political correctness, haven't you been called out for your use of language by the "traditional
press." I'm surprised your publisher even let you get away with it.
PRICE: Actually, the book has been positively reviewed in a number of regional publications, and you're the first reviewer
to mention the language as offensive. My editor has said she thinks I get away with it because the character is really a positive
and pivotal character in the book and that the author's note leaves it unclear if he's one of my ancestors or not.
IDIOT: So is he one of your ancestors, I mean?
PRICE: The census records for the period aren't clear on that point. I'd say he's not a direct ancestor but he might be
a distant cousin.
IDIOT: One of the few redeeming characters I found in the book is your grandfather, Will Price.
PRICE: Thank you. I'm pleased you found one. But there are others Mordecai Corntassel the half-Cherokee medicine man and
seer; Irish Bill Moore, the fun-loving showoff who inspires Will to seek the hand of Lillie Carter, the young woman he loves;
Lillie herself, who motivates Will to be bold enough to take charge of his own destiny; wise old Oliver Price, Will's doting
grandfather; Cassandra Weatherby and her love for Absalom Middleton; even Cattywampus Dog, the winsome mutilated bear hound.
All these are positive, redeeming characters. I'm wondering how you missed them.
IDIOT: No, I remember them. And you're right, they are positive. Speaking of characters, one of your main characters is
a bear. A bear? How did you come up with that?
PRICE: I've been interested for years in Cherokee myth and the bear is a powerful image in that culture. The story is that
bears originated from a group of Cherokees that went into the woods, grew hair and became bears. The bears are willing to
sacrifice themselves as food for humans, but only if the proper ceremonies are preformed and the proper respect given. Of
course, humans have stopped giving that respect and have, in fact, endangered the existence of the world from Yan-e'gwa's
(pronounced Yona) perspective.
IDIOT: So, this is a super-bear with a revenge motive.
PRICE: You could look at him that way, I suppose. He's definitely a bear with consciousness; and he does start out seeking
not so much revenge as an understanding of how to bring the "ancestors" as he refers to humans back into the right path.
IDIOT: But even that part of the plot got really gross, particularly in the hunting scenes. I thought it sort of took over.
PRICE: It's not gratuitous. I try to write about real life, and if you've noticed, that's a phrase I've used several times
in this interview. I think the real lesson of living is that life life that's really lived is loss and pain. Redemption comes
in learning how to deal with the loss and pain with some grace, some faith, some belief that in spite of the unpleasantness
life visits on us, life itself is a priceless gift and always worth striving to make better. That's what my characters are
trying to do, make a better world, but living in unutterably hard times. I think we're so pampered and well off today that
for us, truthfully recalling the harsh conditions of the past is immensely disturbing, perhaps because it makes us feel guilty
for what we have or for not living life as fully as we ought.
IDIOT: All this ugliness you see in life is that because of your years as a Washington Lobbyist before you moved back to
PRICE: Maybe But that life isn't really real, it's phony. That's what's wrong with it. And again, I don't see
life as ugly, I see it as difficult. Difficult but redemptive, if it's lived with grace and courage.
IDIOT: Thank you, Mr. Price. Is this truly the last book in this series, or is that just a marketing ploy? And if so, what
are you working on next?
PRICE: It's not a marketing ploy. I have to be finished with this series, at least for now. I'm writing within living memory
of some of my relatives, and some of them aren't speaking to me over this book already. For now, I've dug even further back
into the family history and am writing a book set in the Revolutionary War.
Charles F. writes and teaches in his native North Carolina mountains. After a career as a journalist, urban planner, management
consultant and Washington Lobbyist, he published Hiwassee: A Novel of the Civil War. His second book, Freedom's
Altar, won the 1999 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for the best work of fiction by a North Carolinian. The Cock's
Spur earned Independent Publisher's 2001 Book Award as one of the Ten Outstanding Books of the Year and won
the Clark Cox Historical Fiction Award of the North Carolina Society of Historians, and Price was named Story Teller of the
Year for 2000.
Where the Water-Dogs Laughed, or The Story of the Great Bear is available in bookstores and through
on-line retailers. (ISBN:1932158502, hardcover, $24.95)
[P}owerful novel, beautifully told and saturated in the atmosphere of its Appalachian landscape.. . .[E]very character
is lovingly crafted and presented. . . [H]ighly recommended.
Susan Hicks, Historical Novels Review
WHERE THE WATER DOGS LAUGHED
Charles F. Price, High Country Publishers, 2003, $24.95, hb, 304pp, 1932158502
This is the fourth novel in a series that weaves a story of life in 19th-century Southern Appalachia. Partly based on personal
family records and memories, the author continues the stories of half-caste Hamby McFee, the Curtis family, the Prices, the
wealthy Weatherbys and introduces a mysterious giant black bear, representative of earlier, Native spirits. There is no single
protagonist in the novel, but a wide range of characters have their moment on stage and the author is skilled enough to let
each one shine through with his or her individual voice. Some, such as the bitter Hamby McFee, the lovelorn Will Price and
the somewhat obnoxious George Wetherby, are a little louder than the others, but every character is lovingly crafted and presented
for their moment in the spotlight. The mythical element provided by the bear is an integral part of the story and although
I was dubious at first, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it actually works in the tale. It*s a powerful novel, beautifully told and saturated in the atmosphere of its Appalachian landscape. Readers
will probably benefit from reading the previous novels in the series to obtain a more complete history of the families concerned,
but I have no hesitation in highly recommending this particular episode.