"Your Own Born Granmammy Doctored with Rattleroot": Folk Medicine in Harriette Simpson Arnow's Hunter's Horn

Article excerpt

While many readers consider Harriette Simpson Arnow's novel Hunter's Horn (1949) to be merely the tale of one man's frustrated attempts to catch an elusive fox, this plot also serves as the backdrop for Arnow's complex account of Appalachian folk medicine. Critical commentary on Hunter's Horn has typically addressed the main character's flaws, the portrayal of mid-twentieth century farm women, and the regional characteristics of the novel as "Southern literature," but, as I shall argue, Hunter 's Horn should to be appreciated for its historical accuracy as a record of local folk medical traditions - details that not only situate the novel regionally but also establish the importance of medical memory for the characters as well as for Arnow.

Amidst the fervor of the fox hunt, Arnow captures and preserves authentic traditions practiced by rural Kentucky residents in the early-tomid-twentieth century, focusing especially on pregnancy, childbirth, and infant illness. Through the adventures of the midwife Sue Annie and her assistant Milly Ballew, Arnow explores their lives through the application of Appalachian folk medicine. Although many scenes involving childbirth and the folk treatment of infant illnesses in Hunter's Horn might appear far-fetched, Arnow includes numerous credible uses of natural herbal lore, magico-religious remedies, and medical beliefs native to and still thriving in the South.

Although Hunter's Horn takes place in the late 1930s and the early 1940s, when the practice of medicine in America was becoming more regulated, isolated communities in Appalachia still looked to individuals like Sue Annie Tiller and the folk healing traditions she practiced that had long before earned the trust of the community. As Appalachian historian Sandra Lee Barney points out, "In part, midwives maintained their standing because they had so much in common with native residents" (66). Admitting that although doctors were available in the area as early as 1800, Arnow claims in her own historical study of Appalachia, this trend descended from the first generations of Kentucky settlers, "the country woman, trained in midwifery, usually by her mother, continued to be a part of life in communities up the river for many years" Flowering 319). In a 1966 lecture "Some Musings on the Nature of History," Arnow outlined her goals in her nonfiction Seed Time on the Cumberland ( 1 960) and Flowering of the Cumberland (1963), both of which included her rich commentary on childbirth and child-rearing and contain a wealth of references to folk remedies enriching and saving the lives of Kentucky pioneers.

Doing research for these books, Arnow drew upon her memories of practices, superstitions, and medicinal methods she encountered while living in Kentucky. She drew upon a storehouse of her childhood memories about herbal remedies and practices digging deeper into the history behind the oral traditions that flowed through Kentucky communities ("Some Musings" 251). Many of the herbal remedies found in her novel in fact might have originated from her mother's garden. Such gardens were common in the Simpson family's time, providing sustenance, just as the garden did for the Ballew family in Hunter s Horn, as well as supplying a natural medicine chest of sorts. Armed with this information, she was better able to understand the factual history and science behind them and incorporate such information in her fiction ("Some Musings" 251). As she recalled, "I realized that about me was a living museum. . ." ("Some Musings" 252). From these recollections she composed realistic scenarios in Hunter s Horn. Arnow's research reveals her knowledge of folk medicine documented in her nonfiction and found throughout Hunter 's Horn.

Sandra L. Ballard suggests that Arnow incorporated her own earliest recollections of the hilly countryside that Nunnely Ballew, his wife Milly, and their seven children call home in Hunter's Horn (16). Born in Wayne County, Kentucky, in 1908, Arnow had a strong sense of community and folk customs that remained with her, even after she moved

to Detroit years later. …