'Nance Dude'is a worthy retelling of a Smokey Mountain legend

Readings

May 08, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

"The Legend of Nance Dude," by Maurice Stanley, 253 pages, John F. Blair, Publisher, Winston-Salem, N.C., $17.95. DEEP IN THE Balsam and Smoky Mountains where North Carolina climbs into Tennessee, on a very cold day in February, 1913, a hard, handsome woman with a leathery face, knuckly hands and beautiful hair walled her 2-year-old granddaughter up in a shallow cave and left her to die.

The woman was 64 years old and she was called Nance Dude by her neighbors around Jonathan's Creek, in Haywood County, North Carolina. Some said Nance Dude was a witch. But she seems only to have been desperately poor and forever enduring.

They've retold her story endlessly in the back country where the Smoky Mountains rise out of their haunting blaze haze.

Maurice Stanley tells her story once again in his new book "The Legend of Nance Dude." His telling has the plain, haunting, elegiac quality of an ancient folk tale or an old border ballad.

When the body of her granddaughter was found, Nance Dude narrowly escaped lynching in Waynesville, the Haywood County seat. Her trial had to be moved to Swain County when no unbiased jurors could be found in Haywood.

Her lawyer told her to plead guilty and after nearly a year in jail she did.

"But that don't mean I done it," she says in Stanley's book.

She was sentenced to 30 years at hard labor.

Nance served 15 years, working nearly every day on a Roanoke River dike, carrying a Bible with her always as the warden required. He believed in penitence. She was 80 when she was paroled in 1929.

She lived out her days, alone except for some nasty black dogs, in a cabin near a place called Conley's Creek. She was 104 when she died in 1952.

Maurice Stanley grew up in Haywood County and he clearly loves the people of the Smokies. He's a college professor now and lives in southeastern North Carolina. He teaches philosophy at Brunswick Community College and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

He got Nance's story from his own kinfolk.

"I first heard it from my mother," he writes in a postscript, "who heard it from

her mother, who saw Nance and Roberta going down through Lake Junaluska that day in February 1913."

Roberta was the name of the child Nance Dude led and carried up Utah Mountain, to a cave she had known from her own childhood, according to Maurice Stanley's account. Roberta's mother was Nance's daughter Lizzie.

The little girl was called Roberta Putnam, although her parents were never properly married until long after she was dead. And that was a big part of the problem.

Will Putnam never accepted Roberta as his own daughter even though he had crept into Lizzie's bed soon after she and Nance moved in with Will and his folks.

He hardly knew what he was doing when he made sex with Lizzie while her mother remained silent beside them on the floor of his parents' cabin.

"A mystery had lumbered past his dull mind -- something huge and wild, like some beast that dwelt in the deep forest."

Snuffling and shuffling through Stanley's story like a deep bass refrain in an Appalachian tone poem is some strange dark unex

plained and menacing presence that stalks these ancient smoky hills.

"You don't have to let him mess with you," Nance tells her daughter. "We're doing our part."

But Lizzie accepts Will, although she's in love with Birch Phillips, the son of the shopkeeper at Jonathan's Creek.

Stanley's book is as full of lost and unrequited love as those old English folk ballads that still survive half-remembered in the Smokies, the ballads of dark and wild love, of love gone wrong and of love that leads to death.

Will believes Roberta is Birch's child. He refuses to marry her as long as Roberta lives with them, even after Lizzie is pregnant with their second child.

They are dirt poor. They share one can of store bought peaches among six people. They cut up one squirrel among them and the meanest, Will, takes the most.

Nance Dude takes her granddaughter up the mountain like a peasant sacrifice of the weakest and most unwanted for the sake of the family or the clan.

"She was guilty," her lawyer writes to Lizzie, "only of being impoverished to a point of such degradation and desperation that she believed that her own survival, and yours, depended on the sacrifice of little Roberta."

Stanley chronicles Nance Dude's life from her childhood before the Civil War to her death alone in the forest at Conley's Corner during the Korean War.

He writes vivid set pieces of Nance's childish guilt when her brother is mauled by a bear, of Haywood County men going off to the Civil War and their sad, scarred return, of a Union raid into Waynesville that kills her true love's mother.

He writes of Nance's marriage and its end when she takes a lover, Dude Hannah, Lizzie's father. Nance's husband casts her off into a life that is ever after narrow and poor.

Maurice Stanley tells her story with the care and tolerance her stoic dignity demands. Stanley's book is a fine and worthy retelling of "The Legend of Nance Dude," deeply rooted in the smoky hills of the southern Appalachians.

And Nance, he tells us, is buried on a grassy knoll overlooking Conley's Creek, with only a jagged black rock as her monument: "It is a beautiful, peaceful place."

Roberta lies miles away, "among strangers -- if, indeed, there are strangers among the dead."

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