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Review

Winston-Salem Journal 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 deserve.

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.

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