Monday, February 13, 2006

In My Library Bag: 40 Acres and No Mule

I must thank Rick Saenz of Cumberland Books for introducing me to this homesteading classic by Kentuckian Janice Holt Giles. Originally published in 1951, 40 Acres and No Mule describes the rocky transition of a seminary secretary turned Appalachian bride.

Giles and her husband set out to transform a hardscrabble piece of property into a home--without money in the bank or indoor plumbing. Much of the memoir describes the customs of her new in-laws and neighbors on the ridge, explaining the fierce pride of Appalachia without demeaning its people.

I enjoyed this so much, I'm now requesting all her other books, too. Here's a passage from Ch. 5 that so touched me with its creativity:

The floors were another big problem...I knew they would be beautiful if we could take them up and re-lay them, sand them, and polish them. And I still hope to do that someday. But in the meantime there was only one thing to do with them--cover them from wall to wall. I despise linoleum except where it belongs: in halls, kitchens, and bathrooms...But I was already learning, from the amount of dirt we tracked in daily, that linoleum was the only practical floor covering in the country. So, recognizing the inevitable once again, I set down to do some figuring. When I got through, I had that hopeless feeling that lack of money always gives you. We couldn't possibly afford good linoleum from wall to wall, and even if we could have afforded it, I knew it would be foolish to put it on those rough, buckled floors...

Henry took me to town again and I began searching for the next best thing. I found three very cheap linoleum rugs, two of them a plain gray and rose marble, and the third a red and black marble As well as I can remember, they were $5.95 each. We centered the two gray ones in the downstairs rooms, and then cut up the third one and laid it around for a border. Believe it or not, we had two very distinguished-looking rooms when we had finished, although it shocked the entire settlement that we should cut up a perfectly good rug. So with cardboard and building paper on the walls and linoleum on the floors, we made our house about as tight and windproof as it could be made. It had cost us less than twenty-five dollars, and I mention that figure simply to show what you can drag up from the bottom of the barrel when necessity compels it. We didn't count our aching backs and tired tempers. (p.81)

--Janice Holt Giles, 40 Acres and No Mule, The University Press of Kentucky, 1967.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Thank you for introducing me to Cumberland Books website and the Giles 40 Acres book! I doubt most of the Agrarian titles will be available at our library, though I've made my list and will try to find them today. Do you know of an inter-state lending library for regional books like that?

So happy to see your love for Ox-Cart Man, and E. Yates books. Donald Hall regularly does readings at our library, being a NH local, and Elizabeth Yates lived here also, up until her death. My children have been to Amos Fortune's grave on fieldtrips...New England is so rich. Wish you could come visit here sometime Meredith, you have good taste in books : )


Genuine Lustre said...

I will be sure and look for this author. 40 acres and no mule - -- and here I am complaining about my less than perfect rototiller.