The Drowned Histories of Appalachia, a guest post by author Juliana Brandt
In this picture, I’m standing on top of Fontana Dam in rural North Carolina. At the time, I’d lived in Appalachia for nearly eight years and had lived in a small town near Fontana Dam for four. And yet, I’d never taken the opportunity to visit Fontana until the weeks before I moved away from the mountains.
Of course, I knew about the massive dam while I lived there. You can’t not know about Fontana when you live near it. It’s gargantuan, the largest dam east of the Rockies, and is nestled inside a luxurious, verdant valley. The reservoir lake beside it is extremely popular during the summer—a source of bliss for locals and tourists alike. While I knew Fontana existed, I never thought twice about how or why it had come to be built in this very rural mountain town. It was simply a building, a construction, a piece of the landscape that I didn’t quite note.
The version of me who’s standing on top of Fontana Dam is in the middle of one of the biggest moments of change in her life. She’s leaving Appalachia to return to her home state of Minnesota. She’s moving—physically and emotionally—across the country. She’s saying goodbye a place that brought her joy and peace and made her feel wholly part of the world. This change feels disastrous to her spirit, because she believes she’ll lose all the parts of herself she’s come to love, that she’ll have to re-learn how to find joy inside a place, when finding joy in the mountains came so easily to her.
Inside that sea of change, the seed of a story was born: I would write a book about the mountains and the people who there who had accepted and loved me so thoroughly. I would pour all my energy into creating a beautiful, lyrical project with a main character who loved the hills and valleys as much as I did. I would find a way to explain how very important Appalachia had become to me. But what would the story and plot be?
I tried my usual angles for writing, falling back on old tropes I loved: witches and curses and magic. In the end, the witch and the curse got tossed to the side, but the magic remained, and so too did my story of change. I didn’t want to leave Appalachia, but I knew I had to. What if I wrote the story I wished I live, one wherein I made the choice to stay, even though that wasn’t the right choice I needed to make.
Through the main character in A Wilder Magic—Sybaline—I was able to play out and see what it would be like to resist inevitable change. Inside that story, I wove in the history of Fontana Dam.
During and after the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created by Roosevelt. It would be the TVA’s job to create dams and electricity throughout the Tennessee Valley, serving six states throughout the South: Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi. It would provide jobs to a place hit hard by the Depression, would provide electricity to a place that had none, and would control flooding in its plentiful river basins. These are all good parts of the history of dam creation, but inside of that “good” history is one of deep sadness, for in the process, over 14,000 families were displaced from their ancestral homes. Entire towns were drowned beneath reservoirs. Cemeteries were uprooted and moved, while some graves were abandoned beneath the lakes.
Fontana Dam itself is home to the Road to Nowhere, a road the government promised to the community that would wind around Fontana Lake and lead to cemeteries from which access was cut off. The road itself is a dead end now, having never been completed. Now, people must travel by boat and over dozens of miles of treacherous, unkempt mountain trails to reach those cemeteries.
A fact that remains ever fascinating to me is that Fontana Dam, unlike other dams created by the TVA, doesn’t provide any electricity to surrounding towns. It was created to supply electricity to the nearby Oak Ridge facility where the atomic bombs were created (this fact is not included in A Wilder Magic).
My first goal in writing A Wilder Magic was to show my deep love for the mountains, and after learning this history, my second goal was to tell this piece of Appalachian history from multiple angles. I wanted to show how inevitable that change was for the communities that lived through it, and also how painful and difficult the experience must have been.
I hope everyone who reads A Wilder Magic is able to fall in love the Appalachia I found a home within and appreciate the history of the place.
About A WILDER MAGIC:
A WILDER MAGIC by Juliana Brandt
On Sale Date: May 4, 2021
9781728245737, Trade Paperback
From the author of The Wolf of Cape Fen comes a beautiful and lyrical story about one family with magic in their bones, and what happens when we have to give up what we love most.
For generations, Sybaline Shaw’s family has lived in an enchanted valley in the Appalachian Mountains, using their magic to help grow the land. But now the government has built a dam that will force the Shaws to relocate, and they’re running out of time before their home will be flooded.
Syabline and her cousin Nettle can’t imagine life without the valley and its magic, so they decide to stay. Using magic, they build an invisible wall around their home. As the water rises, they learn a terrible truth: the water will continue to rise, leaving them to live beneath the lake itself.
There is also a consequence to using magic selfishly, one that might transform both her and Nettle forever. If she can’t find a way to escape, Syballine and the ones she loves could be trapped in the valley forever.
Meet Author Juliana Brandt
JULIANA BRANDT is an author and kindergarten teacher with a passion for storytelling that guides her in both of her jobs. She lives in her childhood home of Minnesota, and her writing is heavily influenced by travels around the country and a decade living in the South. When not working, she is usually exploring the great outdoors. She is also the author of The Wolf of Cape Fen. You can find her online at julianalbrandt.com.
Filed under: MG Lit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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