Editor’s note: “Old Red and Other Stories,” 1963, by Caroline Gordon, is the second in a series of book reviews about works of Kentucky fiction.
Todd is a mere sliver of western Kentucky territory, sliced from larger Pennyrile counties Christian and Logan. Yet it is unexcelled in its wealth of writers and their fine books.
Traveling east out of Hopkinsville on U.S. 68-80, a traveler is alerted five miles from the Todd line to the first of these. He will see, rising 351 feet, the Jefferson Davis monument, the tallest concrete-cast obelisk in the world.
Davis’ sole book is the magisterial “Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government.” If one is to grasp “the rest of the story” regarding the Civil War, President Davis’ work is essential.
Our subject, however, is fiction, and rural southwest Todd was the native home of two authors of great fiction. One is Robert Penn Warren of Guthrie, whose work will be discussed later in this series. The other is Caroline Gordon, who was born out in the country at Merry Mont, the homeplace of her mother’s Meriwether connection.
Two actual persons loom large in Gordon’s fiction. The first is her father, James Morris Gordon, whose livelihood derived from teaching classics (one student was Caroline herself), but whose consuming avocations were hunting and fishing. In Gordon’s stories, her father becomes Alec Maury, and she gives over to him the entirety of one of her best novels, “Alec Maury, Sportsman.”
The other person is presented in her own name: Jenny Wiley. In 1789, Jenny was carried off by Indians and is the heroine of “The Captive.” Critics rank this story as among the best in all American literature.
Stories in “Old Red” may be divided roughly into three groups. The first is a potpourri having mostly female protagonists. Then, in “Old Red,” Alec Maury appears and livens things up. From a Florida sojourn he’s visiting back in Kentucky, happy as can be to get batter bread again. “Ain’t anything else like it in the world,” he exclaims.
Old Red himself is a fox he tells of that they hunted, year in and year out — much as Faulkner characters famously hunted Old Ben the bear. When, yet again, Red eludes hunters, one shouts, “There he goes, impudent scoundrel!”
In “One More Time,” Alec goes fishing. He gets into some “wonderful rock bass water,” puts on a Johnson’s Fancy Fly and quick-sinking bait, and “casts right in the middle of the current.” Momentarily, “the line twisted sharply to the left and I knew I was onto a big one.” A knowing woman author captures the joy of an angler’s strike.
Still, this writing is tame compared with what is to be found in the third segment of “Old Red.” Comprising it is one 43-page story, “The Captive.” It opens with an exchange between pioneer husband and wife, Tom and Jenny Wiley. The woman’s is the narrative voice.
“They were up long before day and were loading the horses at first dawn streak. Even then Tom didn’t want to go.”
He argues, “This ginseng don’t have to get to the station.”
Jenny retorts, “We’ve been without salt for three weeks now.”
Tom’s parting words will prove prophetic: “There’s worse things than doing without salt.”
Jenny ignores the imitation of an owl’s call that precedes the Indians’ attack on her isolated cabin. Leading the party is a Cherokee named Mad Dog, seeking revenge for the death of his son. In a terrifying scene, they set the cabin ablaze while tomahawking Jenny’s three older children and also her brother.
Captive are the woman, who is pregnant, and her suckling baby, Dinny. As they set out, Jenny glances at the buck in the lead. “I saw,” she says, “something dangling from his belt and I looked away quick. I knew it was the scalps of my children.”
A later instant rivals the horror of this one. It is decided Dinny retards the flight north into Kentucky’s Big Sandy Valley. Grasped by the legs, he is swung head-first against a tree.
Caroline Gordon renders the months of Jenny’s captivity so as to make the reader feel he experiences them with her: her fears, times she feels too exhausted to go on, her contriving an escape.
The final scene of this escape is unsurpassed in its dramatic immediacy. Telling her story to the folks who save her, she concludes, “Lord God, I was lucky to get away from them Indians!”
Bearing five more children. Jenny Wiley lived to age 71. She is buried in Johnson County.
Gordon’s novels are in the Boyle County and Centre libraries. Her stories are at Centre, in “Old Red,” “Forest of the South,” and “Collected Stories.”
Nicholson lives in Danville. He is an author as well as a former teacher and newspaperman.