HC: Your grandmother wrote these words when she was over sixty, yet her voice seems so true to the spirit of the young girl she is writing about. How do you explain this?
CB: She was certainly a woman without pretense, and that’s reflected not only in her words but also in how she lived her life. My sense from reading her writing is that, for better or worse, she enjoyed the process of revisiting her childhood.
HC: You’re a singer-songwriter. How did your love of music influence the chapters you have crafted here?
CB: Well, that may be an overstatement, but songwriting is certainly my passion, so I tend to view the world in that context. I am always looking for a good story, listening for a good line or a hook. In time, that becomes second nature, sometimes to the point of distraction. Once I began thinking about how to format my grandmother’s journal, it became obvious to me that her prose—simple, honest, and filled with great imagery—reads like verses from an Appalachian folk song. So, certainly, the section of the book with the journal entries has the feel of a song. At least I think it does. I hope it does. One of my favorite lines is, “They passed us like a freight train would a bum.” Lines like that make you reach for your guitar.
HC: You don’t attempt to romanticize Vetra’s childhood. How extreme were her family’s poverty and isolation?
CB: I took that cue from my grandmother. She was obviously forthright in telling her story, so how could I be otherwise? But looking in from the outside, it’s easy to cling to stereotypical perceptions about poverty and isolation. By today’s standards, hers was indeed a hard-knock existence—the reality of living in a log cabin riddled with holes in the roof and the floor, waking up with snow on your blankets, foraging for wild greens just to make a meal. It’s impossible to minimize those conditions. But folks from her generation tend to be rather stoic about those experiences. Sure, there were hard times, but there were good times as well. In the years leading up to the Great Depression, many families struggled to survive. Her family wasn’t alone. That may have lessened any sense of despair. To us, those conditions are unfathomable, but for those who actually lived that life I think it’s a matter of perspective. That is a difficult question to answer.
HC: Vetra’s father was a bootlegger. Was this seen as a shameful way to make a living, such as it was, or as a clever way around Prohibition?CB: I suppose that’s also a matter of perspective, but I believe both apply. There’s a third consideration, survival, which in my mind is different from merely making a living through criminal activities. It’s not an excuse, but desperation often leads to questionable behaviors. How one reconciles or rationalizes those behaviors probably depends more upon circumstances and choices. But there’s always a price to pay. I think my grandmother felt that her father’s moonshining was, in part, due to his strong desire to drink, which he did to excess and to the detriment of the family’s well-being.
Check back Wednesday to read the conclusion!
Others Had It Worse: Sour Dock, Moonshine, and Hard Times in Davis County, Iowa by Vetra Covert and Chris Baker