Before Earnest Hemingway, John Updike, or Breece Pancake, I read books written by Earl Hamner, Jr. His most notable titles, Spencer’s Mountain and The Homecoming, centered around one Appalachian family. Named the Spencers in print, they were later called the Waltons on TV.
Like me, this fictional brood lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains, though they did so during The Great Depression, some fifty years before I was raised there. They were poor but never destitute, earnest but never banal. They resembled my family in many ways, but somehow their lives were less sordid. None did jail time. They never said filthy things or whipped their children with belts. They were the kind of people we aspired to be, ones who became noble by way of their strife.
When Hamner brought this goodhearted family into the mainstream, he pulled off a coup. During the tumult of the 1960s and 70s, in the midst of race and gender struggles and a time of burgeoning sexuality, he wrote simple stories—one about a son searching for his father during a snow storm, many about the same boy torn between his loyalty to home and his drive to be a writer. Even when Hamner’s tales addressed hot button issues, like racism or antisemitism, he ran against the grain, revealing that goodness didn’t come from picket signs but instead the human heart.
At age eleven, I was too young to glean any of that. I just knew that I loved the Spencers and the Waltons. Whichever surname, they meant the world to my mother, brother, and me. We actually imitated them at night, saying goodnight, John-Boy, and goodnight, Mary Ellen before bed, and my little brother adopted Elizabeth Walton as his imaginary friend. The youngest of the televised siblings, she played with him when he was alone and was the first to be blamed when he did something wrong. In time, she became a running joke. The line Elizabeth did it sent peals of laughter through our tiny, third-floor apartment.
This morning, thirty-some years later, my husband texted me, saying, “Earl Hamner died. 92 years old.” I was working on the final chapters of my first novel at the time and stopped, stunned.
I’d always fantasized about meeting him once the book was done. During a telephone interview or lunch near his LA home, I would explain the peculiar role his characters played in my life, saying that he was the first author who made me want to write.
It’s true. Though I loved other books, none led me to think I might pen one. It took a mountain man to spark that notion, and while I’ll never be able to thank Mr. Hamner for that, I can still suggest you find his work. His novels about the Spencers are out of print but worth the search. In them, you’ll see how unabashed goodness can be enthralling and how Appalachia, for all its grit, can sooth the soul.