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Brighten the Corner Where You Are

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About The Author

Fred Chappell

Fred Chappell is the award-winning author of over twenty books of poetry and fiction. His previous novels include I Am One of You Forever and Look Back All the Green Valley. He teaches at the University of North Carolina in Grennsboro, where he lives with his wife Susan.

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Reading Group Gold

This story of a day in the life of Joe Robert Kirkman, a North Carolina mountain schoolteacher, sly prankster, country philosopher, and family man, won the hearts of readers and reviewers across the country.

A version of this article, written by Rob Neufeld, was published in the Asheville Citizen-Times, May 18, 2003.

Childhood Magic
Chappell’s parents, both school teachers, provided him with a house of books. As a youth, Chappell, like Jess, his fictional alter ego, often escaped to enter worlds revealed through reading.
“I remembered when I first read Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen,’” Chappell recounted. “It was an old, musty book with small print that I’d found in the attic of my grandmother’s house. I started that story at 10:30 in the morning and I didn’t look up until long past dark. I missed all my chores. I came downstairs and got a scolding—came near to getting a licking. It didn’t mean much. I was still in Hans Christian Andersen’s world. The world I was physically living in seemed less real than that.
“Sometimes when I’m writing, that same sensation comes over me,” Chappell added. “It’s better than telephones and cat litter.”

Quartet of Novels
Brighten the Corner Where You Are is the second novel in a quartet that begins with “I Am One of Your Forever,” continues with “Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You,” and concludes with “Look Back All the Green Valley.” The titles refer to songs familiar in Southern Appalachian culture. They reflect one of the more ambitious aims of Chappell’s writing.
“I had hoped that by constructing a fictional autobiography of a young man coming out of an Appalachian rural life to a broader intellectual one,” Chappell revealed, “that I shall have drawn the story and dramatized the feelings of a great many people in 20th century America, who have had to bid farewell to a pastoral background.”
When, in Brighten the Corner, Joe Robert Kirkman is challenged for teaching evolutionary theory in class, the issue is respectfully subjected to a rural mountain perspective. Joe Robert professes, in his Mark Twain way, that “man seemed to be trying to evolve into an animal as nice as a monkey, with an embarrassing lack of success.” Yet, Chappell also has him doubting his scientific smugness.
The fact is, Joe Robert admires such native hardscrabble farmers as Ginny and Pruitt Dorson, whose suicidal son had attended to him. The Dorsons suspect that modern man’s meddling and pride have mucked things up.
In a brilliant chapter titled, “Socrates,” Chappell transforms a stuttering country boy into a classroom star as he takes on the role of Socrates and leads Joe Robert into exposing his own hypocrisy. Repeatedly, Chappell’s hero’s virtues lead to his humbling.

If there’s a teacher who has not read Brighten the Corner, the joy police should pull his or her file. The novel’s lessons go beyond the classroom, however, and, as Chappell has indicated, involve an interest in Appalachian values, one of which is the value of storytelling.
In Chappell’s works, storytelling performs the widest possible range of functions—recreation, instruction, healing, courtship, persuasion, religious enlightenment, the preservation of tradition, and the binding of family and community. Literature is communal and priestly.
In his first Kirkman novel, “I Am One of You Forever,” Chappell epitomizes a mountain storyteller in the person of Jess’s Uncle Zeno, whose “stories so thoroughly absorbed the characters he spoke of that they took leave of the everyday world and just went off to inhabit his narratives.” Uncle Zeno’s discursive, mesmerizing renditions made Jess’s father so obnoxiously envious that Zeno eventually incorporated him into one of his stories—an occult threat.
It’s not surprising to learn that Chappell’s first efforts at fiction writing had been in the realm of science fiction. That was partly because, Chappell said, “it seemed that science fiction was something I could write. It didn’t require experience of the world, and editors seemed to be encouraging.”

Chappell’s first love? It was poetry, and still is. It has made him the Jack Nicholson of poetry-writing award-winners, and led to his being named North Carolina’s Poet Laureate in 1997.
Chappell’s books of poems about local and personal mythology, four volumes combined in 1981 into the masterwork, “Midquest,” complement his fictional Kirkman quartet. They resolve what has always been, for Chappell, a conflict between two forms of expression.
When Chappell had broken into publication in 1964 with the novel, “It is Time, Lord,” a Gothic tale about a young man ensnared by self-delusion, it had not been his literary preference. It had been an attempt to make some money and the result of a fateful quirk.
“In 1961,” Chappell says, “I went to Duke University and became editor of its literary magazine, ‘The Archive.’ One issue required that I fill up a blank page, so I wrote a short story. Duke had a literary festival, and invited New York editors to comment on student work. Hiram Haydn, editor at Atheneum Books, liked my one-page story and asked me to submit a novel. I said, ‘No thanks, I’m a poet. I don’t care to soil my spirit.’ That summer, I ran out of money and wrote Haydn and said. ‘I enclose the first chapter of a novel.’ He sent me 250 dollars, one quarter of an advance.”
Chappell’s latest book, “Family Gathering,” a collection of poems about guests at a family function, brilliantly composes stories as verse, achieving his dual purpose. Music is important to Chappell. He concluded two of his Kirkman novels with music—“Farewell, I’m Bound to Leave You” with the folk song memories of Jess’s dying grandmother; and “Look Back All the Green Valley” with fiddling at Jess’s father’s funeral.

Brighten the Corner Where You Are is not quite as music-filled as Chappell’s other Kirkman novels, but it does revel in the kind of symbolism that Chappell strove to include in his first three books. In fact, the book starts out with the grandest of symbols—Joe Robert reaching for the moon. Jess witnesses his father lift the moon from its reflection in a barn window and drop it in a milk bucket.
Later, Joe Robert’s mother-in-law prevails upon him to return it to the sky. “I often make a metaphor literal,” Chappell says. “What we imagine is real. Everything we have done
is a product of our imagination.”
“The experiences of talking to tornadoes and ghosts,” Chappell says, referring to episodes in his books, “have happened to many people. The people who have experienced these things believed they happened. The New York Times did not send out a reporter to Moses to say, ‘Are you sure it was a bush you heard speaking?’ In Asheville, I can go out on the streets and find you people who believe the moon landing had been a hoax. I can find you even more people who plant by the signs.”
One of the pieces of advice that Chappell gives to people who want to write family stories in memorable and meaningful ways is to seek not only the literal truth but also the greater truth. “Kids will want to put down the facts,” he says of the story writing initiative of “Together We Read.” “But,” he stresses, “They’re not after the facts. They’re after the truth. When they don’t know something, they should make it up.” He also suggests connecting to sensual details—for instance, recollecting smells of past times and comparing them to smells today.

1. Chappell chooses to start his story with an initiation. Into what realms is the boy, Jess, being initiated by his father?
2. At what point in the novel do you begin to get a specific sense of place—the mountains—Southern Appalachia—Haywood County?
3. After being introduced to the hero-philosopher-clown in the first chapter, you may be so in love with him that you want to see him keep clowning forever. Or there may be non-comic attitudes that you wish he’d demonstrate. If so, what? See if any of these other attitudes are fulfilled later in the book.
4. “My father had declared eternal war on custom,” the narrator says. What are other principles that guide Joe Robert’s life? Society features so many customs, declaring war on them yields a wealth of good plot lines. Do other principles create as many interesting situations?
5. What do you make of Jess, the young narrator, knowing his father’s private thoughts and out-of-earshot words?
6. Joe Robert believes that “God was something of a windbag, continually talking to mankind, but pitching His discourse beyond our abbreviated human capacities. His method was the optimistic, and God lost most of his audience.” (page 34) Satire is a rather gentle form of persuasion. What is Chappell trying to persuade you of here? How familiar are you with satire? Has the use of it declined?
7. Jess says that he never waked ever in his life, but dreamed of his father as a mythological hero. Someday, Jess thought, he’d carry his father as Aeneas did his (in Virgil’s Roman epic) “to the shores of the future.” Are you familiar with the reference to the Aenead? Do you read the classics? If not, are you inspired to do so? Are the heroes of past ages relevant today?
8. What kind of role model is Joe Robert for his son? Is Jess going to be handicapped in any way because of his upbringing? What is his father’s fate, do you think? (The answers to these questions are answered in the fourth book of the Kirkman quarter, Look Back All the Green Valley.)
9. In how many ways is storytelling important to our lives? Here’s an instance. While Virg Campbell and Joe Robert are making efforts to revive a drowning girl, Virg starts telling a silly story about a rabbit-hunting tourist. “It seemed a fitting time for a windy,” Joe Robert thinks. How so? Does storytelling act like magic? How so in your actual experience?
10. Are there any stories in Brighten the Corner Where You Are that you would be inclined to retell to friends?
11. If someone were to say you were acting “Kirkmanic,” what would they mean?
12. Brighten the Corner contains references to other volumes in Chappell’s Kirkman quartet—for example, the Bound for Hell Grocery and Dry Goods Store (p. 42), Johnson Gibbs, the war casualty (p. 60), Joe Robert’s courtship with Cora (p. 96); Joe Robert’s mother-in-law, as sharp as Clarence Darrow (p. 97); and more. Are you eager to read the other volumes? Are you caught up with the Kirkman family?
13. Compare Joe Robert to the Music Man. See page 52, where he says, “We got real trouble here.”
14. Look back at question 3, which considers Joe Robert’s potential for non-comic attitudes. Now look at the story about Lewis Dorson, the quiet mountain boy who came home a decorated soldier and ended up killing himself in Detroit. What are the themes that elicit Joe Robert’s piety?
15. What are the virtues of a traditional, rural mountain family? (See page 62.)
16. Pruitt Dorson suspects that it was his son’s book learning and not just the war that had hurt his son. Pruitt himself only reads the Bible. Maybe education “was not the cure but the disease,” Kirkman concedes. Do you agree?
17. What does Brighten the Corner have to say about the teaching profession—about teacher morale (p. 51); the need for hand-on learning and good equipment (p. 68); memory aids (p. 74); the conflict between telling the truth and maintaining job security (pp. 91, 95); role-playing (p. 152); and Socratic dialogue (p. 159)?
18. Joe Robert, teaching science, takes the issue of Creationism head on. (p. 69) Would he get in trouble in certain schools for what he says?
19. Do you practice self-effacement? Can it be practiced in such a way that you can be taken seriously and yet not be considered superior? When and how does Kirkman do it?
20. In the primarily White mountain population of Brighten the Corner, Chappell gets to portray one African-American, Jubal Henry, the wise school custodian. Although one portrait can never stand for an entire race, how does Jubal reflect on African-Americans?
21. Does Joe Robert meet his match or more than his match in Jubal Henry? Joe Robert has his truthstretchers and diplomatic banter. What does Jubal have? What does he mean when he tells Joe Robert, “I am foretelling there is a hubcap on the table with cigar butts in it”; and then that the little plywood partition in the boiler room holds up the whole school. (p. 127)
22. How does the goal of being a wise man or woman fare among other goals in society? Are there such people as wise ones? Is Joe Robert one? Is it proper for a wise man to be foolish and even dense sometimes? See page 128.
23. Why does the Bacchus story take the turn it does at the end—when the goat talks and makes an amorous remark to Joe Robert?
24. As the “Socrates” chapter asks, “Is it of supreme importance” that the students of Tipton “should be conversant with contemporary scientific thought?” (p. 161) Does the truthfulness of science depend upon current (and changeable) trends in thinking? (p. 163) Might Darwin’s theory of evolution one day be overturned? (p. 164) Does Scotty-as-Socrates misstate Socrates’ opinion about Joe Robert’s teaching methods. Do Joe Robert and Scotty make missteps in their discussion?
25. Why did Joe Robert misjudge the reactions of the school board so badly?
26. The governor’s representative is happy to have Joe Robert’s feat of saving a drowning girl “rise in status” in newspaper reports—for political reasons. (p. 190) To what extent are we all tall tale tellers? Where and when do we draw the line between telling things exactly as they are and making changes to improve the story? When is such story-making a “lie” and when enhanced truth?
27. What kind of a process does Joe Robert go through at the end? He quits his job, becomes disillusioned with Socrates, dismisses the honor bestowed on him by the governor, and learns of his favorite student’s abdication of an academic career. Then he decides he’s going to be a farmer and deal directly with the world. What’s up? How do you feel about all this?
28. Why does Chappell make Janie Forbes one of the most prominent characters?
29. What is the “joke” that Joe Robert thinks he tells his wife at the end?
30. The last line in Brighten the Corner refers to Jess’s mother, who, lying next to her husband in bed, dreams her own dreams, “pursuing her own exotic life.” (p. 212) Why does Chappell end his book this way? Are there alternate endings, or is this the perfect one?
31. Is Joe Robert Kirkman a throwback? Who are the throwback characters in our world? Are they mainly romantic and appealing characters, or are they potentially effective ones?
32. What does Joe Robert mean by calling himself a “liar”? His friends call him that, too. It seems to be a compliment. Would you ever call yourself that? What does Joe Robert achieve by using the word?
33. What does Southern Appalachian literature and Fred Chappell in particular have to show the world about storytelling?

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