Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Folk/Fairy Tale

Jack Tales and Mountain Yarns: As Told By Orville Hicks

Edited by Julia Taylor Ebel. 2009. Boone, NC: Parkway Publishers. 200 pages. ISBN: 1-933251-64-6 (hard cover), 1-933251-65-4 (soft cover).

Reviewed by James E. Doan, Nova Southeastern University

[Review length: 497 words • Review posted on November 10, 2009]

Jack Tales and Mountain Yarns includes more than twenty tales collected from Beech Mountain, North Carolina, storyteller Orville Hicks, transcribed by Julia Ebel, and charmingly illustrated by Sherry Jensen. As Ebel points out in her introduction, Hicks learned many of these tales, as well as songs and riddles, from his mother, Sarah Harmon Hicks, often while collecting galax and other plants in the mountains. Sarah herself was the granddaughter of nineteenth-century master yarnspinner and Beech Mountain patriarch, Council (Counce) Harmon (1807–96), and both she and her father, McKeller (Kell) Harmon, were among the storytellers from whom Richard Chase collected in the 1930s and 1940s, which helped launch the tremendous interest in Jack tales. Numerous volumes of Jack tales, Grandfather tales, and other mountain yarns stem from Harmon’s progeny, including Jane Hicks Gentry, Maud Long, R. M. and Marshall Ward, Hattie Presnell, Frank Proffitt, Jr., and probably most famously, Leonard “Ray” Hicks (1922–2003), who was actually Orville’s second cousin. Orville learned many of his tales at Ray’s homestead on Beech Mountain, and he considers himself to be carrying on the tradition Ray did much to promote.

In an earlier study, Orville Hicks: Mountain Stories, Mountain Roots (Winston-Salem: John Blair, 2006), Ebel includes a biography of the storyteller, based on extensive conversations with him and members of his family, texts of a few of his poems and stories, and discussions of tales told by his mother. In the volume under review we find a much fuller repertoire, including Orville’s versions of several well-known Appalachian tales, including “Jack and the Robbers,” “Jack and the Varmints,” “Jack and the Devil,” and “Jack and the King’s Mountain”; other traditional tales such as “Soap, Soap, Soap,” “The Man on the Moon,” “Gallymander,” and “Catskin” (a particularly interesting variant of “Cinderella” in which the heroine appears quite self-reliant); personal narratives such as “The Mule Eggs,” “Potato on a Stick,” “Ashcakes and Corn Flitters,” and “The Hardest Whipping”; and riddles and ballads.

All the material is carefully edited, with close attention to the rhythms of Hicks’ speech and the Appalachian dialect, as well as a useful glossary of terms he uses, including grammar and pronunciation. Ebel includes a story Orville composed with his cousin Ray as the central character, based on an actual event that had happened to Ray’s father, which she considers a “folktale in the making.” In addition, there is a manuscript version of a tale Orville wrote for Ebel’s grandson, “Orville and the Little People,” which also demonstrates the ongoing creative process of storytelling for Hicks.

The photographs of Orville and his surroundings, together with Jensen’s illustrations, provide a rich glimpse of Appalachian folklife and lore. Thomas McGowan’s afterword helps situate Orville and his storytelling tradition within the context of the Hicks-Harmon clan and North Carolina folklore in general.

Taken all together, this collection provides an excellent addition to the already significant library of publications dealing with these important components of American folklore.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.