Thomas Burton. Beech Mountain Man: The Memoirs of Ronda Lee Hicks. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. $32.95 cloth.
Danielle E. Quales
In this book, Burton presents the life stories of western North Carolina native Ronda Lee Hicks on a wide variety of subjects, all of which are equally informative and engaging. Hicks narrates stories about his days in the army and in prison, the importance of his home and family on Beech Mountain, and his many encounters with less than amicable characters. Hicks is a member of the renowned Hicks-Harmon storytelling family, who are well known and studied for their centuries as keepers of Jack Tales and other traditional European folktale forms. Ronda Lee Hicks, the member of the family presented in Burton’s book, however, tells stories about his own life and the people and places he knows best, rather than the traditional stories for which his extended family is known.
The author presents Hicks as a typical rough-and-tumble Appalachian mountain man and yet, at the same time, Burton shows how this stereotype is much more nuanced than most think. Hicks has developed a strong set of moral convictions over a life of difficult times and situations. For example, the stereotypical culture of violence that has been perpetuated about the Appalachian region is poignantly illustrated in many of Hicks’s anecdotes about his own life experience. However, Burton says that Hicks never initiates violence himself and that he has a very well defined code of ethics that is strikingly similar to the Old Testament system of retribution—a code of behavior that has characteristically defined mountain life for many generations.
There are many other themes that run through this book that are commonly associated with the genre of Appalachian studies. One of these themes is the importance of one’s reputation in the community, and this orally-circulated reputation being something upon which all social interactions hinge. Following closely is the fact that there has historically been a general distrust of outsiders and of government institutions more generally in this isolated mountain region. Hicks’s mostly negative experience in the U.S. Army expresses his own similar sentiments in these areas. The subject of Burton’s book has lived a very difficult, much more wild life than have any of his siblings, but he recognizes that there are reasons for things happening the way they did. Hicks concludes that he does not have regrets because he did what he thought was the right thing to do at each moment in time.
Burton’s study can be understood as an ethnographic account, yet it is unique in that the words in the book are nearly all those of Hicks himself, with little explanation or interjection from Burton—on average a few sentences of transition or clarification occur every five pages. Despite the fact that Hicks’s distinct mountain dialect is present in his tales, the author has done a fine job transcribing his interviews, and the book is thus very readable. Burton writes in his “Acknowledgments” that the stories contained in this book were collected over the course of a year, but he does not note at any point in the book which stories were collected from which sessions. It may have been helpful to the reader for Burton to have established some sort of system to designate which stories in each chapter were collected at the same storytelling session so that the reader could better understand how Hicks himself understands the relationship between these stories and their meaning in his life. It also would have been helpful for Burton to have included more background information about how he and Hicks became acquainted and why he chose to use his stories for the subject of this book.
Beech Mountain Man is a helpful resource for people already interested in the Appalachian region and those with a background in closely related academic fields. The stories contained in this book showcase values held by both Appalachian culture as a whole, and by the unique character of Hicks himself. Especially interested persons may include those conducting research on the Hicks-Harmon family and their wider storytelling tradition. People who are outsiders to the field, however, would have benefitted from additional contextual information to frame Hicks’s lively stories, so that they would not run the risk of being led into potentially harmful stereotypes about the Appalachian region and its people. For outside readers of the book, it is advised that they not let this study be the only resource they consult about Appalachian culture.