By JAMES L. NICHOLSON
2:42 PM EST, December 23, 2012
Editor’s note: “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come,” 1903, by John Fox Jr., is the fourth in a series of book reviews about works of Kentucky fiction.
An unexpected number of the best Kentucky novels have come from the hills of the eastern part of the state. Some of these were written by natives, others by outlanders who, having migrated in, became fascinated with the people and their folky ways.
A prime example of the latter is John Fox Jr. He was born during the Civil War at Stony Point in rural Bourbon County, which is south of Paris. Like two other Kentucky novelists, Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Caroline Gordon, he first was educated by his father. Prepared well, he was the youngest graduate in his class at Harvard.
Illness — possibly tuberculosis — took Fox from the city to the more salubrious climate of the hills. At Big Stone Gap, Va., just across the line from Harlan and Letcher counties, his father and brothers had begun to develop coal and timber lands. There, Fox became a close observer of mountain folk and began to write.
His novels show that, among other things, he mastered the people’s dialect. He knew, for instance, they did not greet one another saying “How-dee”; rather, they said “How-dye.”
Fox’s two most popular novels were “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” and “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Passing from magazine serial to book in 1903, the former sold more than a million copies.
Even though it is “local color” fiction — the genre of Virginia’s Thomas Nelson Page, Kentucky’s James Lane Allen, and even Mark Twain — in the hands of a skilled writer with a good story, it can retain perennial interest. Certainly “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” still reads well.
It begins as the story of an orphaned boy named Chad and his dog Jack. When even his adoptive parents die, Chad realizes, “I hain’t nothin’ but a boy, but I got to ack like a man now.”
He heads deep into the hills.
A kind family — the Turners — hearing the boy play a mean banjo, take him in — and Jack, too. Through Old Joel Turner and his sons, Chad enters a wider world. Embarking on a fork of the Kentucky River, they raft a harvest of logs northwesterly to Frankfort.
At this juncture, a word is in order about the land they leave behind. To this day, a place called Kingdom Come Settlement School is on the map of Letcher County. It is in the extreme southwest; a few miles away, west to east, runs Little Shepherd Trail.
In Frankfort, having become separated from the older fellows with whom he’s come, Chad is offered a ride into Lexington by Major Burford. In a fortuitous twist, the major proves to be Chad’s kinsman, well-to-do and childless. The major will adopt and educate him.
Next door lives another landed Lexington family, the Deans. From their daughter Margaret and her friends, Chad observes the distance between himself, an awkward hill youth, and the socially well bred. Yet he also can see he is as intelligent and as adept at horsemanship and use of firearms as anyone.
At this time, the war between the states nears, and no author surpasses Fox in portraying Kentucky’s unique position in that tragic conflict. In one sentence, he sets forth the ambivalence of Kentuckians in the lead — up to secession and subjugation: “Kentucky convictions are with the Union; her kinship and sympathies are with the South.”
Although neutrality became state policy, it proved impossible to maintain. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, deposed elected officials, had upstanding citizens arrested and, untried, imprisoned or transported. Ever since 1865, Kentucky has regarded itself as a Southern state.
More than the two other border states, Maryland and Missouri, Kentucky was the land of brother against brother, son against father, friend against friend. The Dean boys fought on opposing sides. Chad enlisted contrary to Major Dean’s allegiance. None knew on which side he might find a pre-war companion.
In the Confederate forces were 40,000 Kentucky volunteers. The most famous outfit they formed was the First Kentucky Brigade. It was commanded by John C. Breckinridge, vice president of the United States under Buchanan and one of three candidates for president versus Lincoln in 1860.
Confederate raider John Hunt Morgan was the most famous Kentucky warrior. Fox dedicates his book to Currie Duke, whose husband, General Basil Duke, was one of “Morgan’s Men.”
A strength of “The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come” is in its dramatizing the ways divided loyalties played out in war.
In 1919, John Fox Jr. was a victim of the flu epidemic.
Multiple copies of his books may be found in Boyle County Pubic Library.
Nicholson lives in Danville. He is an author as well as a former teacher and newspaperman.
Copyright © 2013, AM News