Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Oral History: The Enchanted Circle of Narrative and Dream

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Oral History: The Enchanted Circle of Narrative and Dream

Article excerpt

"Tell me your dreams," Roy says to Sally at the end of the narrative body of Oral History (1). Though a joking reference to the second Almarine's Amway sales pitch, Roy's request highlights the orientation of the entire novel. Dreams, not so much the night-time sort but visions of what one longs to be or to attain, propel the novel forward. Each generation of characters gropes for ways to actualize its dreams and, in so doing, creates the future--and the narrative, for dreams come with an injunction to be told.

Narrative history begins when the earlier Almarine Cantrell "looks out on space" from his cabin door, "past the creek and the dropping off holler" (26):

   Away acrost his valley he sees Black Mountain rising jagged to the
   sky--county seat behind it, Black Rock where the courthouse is--and if he
   looks to the left on past it, he sees all the furtherest ranges, line on
   tine. Purple and blue and blue again and smoky until you can't tell the
   mountains apart from the sky. Lord, it'll make a man think something,
   seeing that. It'll make him think deep. (26)

The expansiveness of the landscape evokes within Almarine an unarticulated imaginative response, which Granny, the storyteller, helps Almarine put into words thus: "What you need is a girl" (27). The mountains have initiated Almarine's longing, but it is Granny who initiates the story by naming his longing.

Granny knows without Almarine's having to speak what it is that his heart craves. She can tell because she understands the congruence of the outer world with the inner, and she has observed the way his eyes dwell on the farthest ridge where land meets sky. Knowing the mountains well--she knows the names and uses of its plants, can read the fog and can easily find her way along a woodland trail in utter darkness--Granny uses that knowledge to read the human heart.

Granny also understands the art of the storyteller in terms of the landscape. Speaking of Almarine's experience, she says:

   iffen twas my story, why I'd be all hemmed in by the facts of it like Hoot
   Owl Holler is hemmed in by them three mountains. I couldn't move no way but
   forward. And often in my traveling over these hills I have seed that what
   you want the most, you find often the beaten path. (27-28)

Granny's metaphor suggests that the storyteller, like the healer, ministers to "sufferers" of a sort, those who are so hemmed in by their experience that they cannot wander freely throughout the landscape of the imagination in order to find what they "want the most," in the dual senses of desiring and lacking. In her daily search for healing plants, Granny has learned that "what you want" is usually unseen and unknown. Telling a story also involves searching beyond what is obvious for the hidden complement, for what, once found and articulated, revitalizes the imagination. Granny's self-portrayal as a healer gathering esoteric herbs is her metaphor of the storyteller as one who knows how to find and how to apply what will make the audience hael, that is, whole.

When Granny Hibbits, Granny Younger's successor, implores Ora Mae to use her natural gift as a healer to help a baby with thrash, Ora Mae refuses. "[B]reathe on its mouth while you say the three most powerful names" (214), Granny tells her, but Ora Mae will not. She knows that these words are hollow fictions, that the baby will not die without them. What she does not know is that sometimes people really do need fictions to live, that is, dreams to believe in and live for. The grannies of Hoot Owl Holler understand this and minister to others by speaking to them in a language they can believe in, even though it may be a language of illusion. This is the function of healers and storytellers like Granny Younger who open novels or otherwise initiate living narrative, providing meaningful myths to empower the lives of their community or, continuing the metaphor of resuscitating the sick child, using their mouths as vehicles of the wind which breathes life into sound, transforming it into words of healing power for others. …

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