Fred Chappell’s Portrait of a Family, Warts and All

Detail from John James Audobon’s “Carolina Parakeets,” the cover of Family Gathering. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Many portrayals of family life in Appalachia rely on clichés. Fred Chappell’s poetry collection Family Gathering (2000), thankfully, avoids those pitfalls. And the format in which he chooses to write might be crucial for his success.

Family Gathering is “a series of sharply limned character sketches,” according to the book’s back cover, and focuses on the lives of an extended family. Among many others, readers meet Elizabeth, the young girl without cousins her age overlooked at family get-togethers;Uncle Einar and Aunt Wilma, who compromise to keep their loveless marriage alive; and Aunt Lavinia and her casserole, the horror of every family gathering—its fumes “are strong enough/To set the smoke detectors off” and it makes Geiger counters “go stark mad.”

The petty gossip, rivalries, bonding moments, and complexities of keeping a family together bounce from one meeting to the next, though no storyline unites the poems. They’re connected by personality, not plot.

Throughout the sketches, Chappell confronts death, the bonds of family, insecurity, and fear, but also love, friendship, hope for the future, and humility. In “Uncle Einar,” Einar is

Blaring Sinatra at full power

Unless Aunt Wilma has accompanied

Her burnished husband for a Sunday ride;

For she insists on hymn tunes cranked up loud

To remind them both they owe it all to God.

Aunt Wilma might appear pious in “Uncle Einar,” but their marriage survives thanks to economic reasons more than genuine affection or Christian love, as the reader discovers with each poem. God, fate, and death linger in the background of many poems, though macabre fears are balanced out; Chappell is no Edgar Allan Poe. He also writes of the family oddballs, such as Cousin Reeves, the packrat who “Saves lengths of string/For he believes/That everything/Will prove useful/When least expected.” Or points out accidental family heirlooms, such as an old chair that stays within the family; even though it’s “sprung and dingy, weary to the bone,” it now has a “maternal charm,” reminding the family of the past.

At 96 years old, Uncle Nahum accepts death in the family as a natural rhythm, even if the rest of the family is unsettled by him:

He numbers it an article of faith

There will be fewer at next year’s gathering;

The seasons trundle and evermore they bring

Each of us closer to the gates of death—

Except for Uncle Nahum who shows no clue

He’s watched a century’s winters come and go,

Enshrouding several dozen with featureless snow.

You shiver just a little when he looks at you.

The occurrence of death and loss fits in naturally with large families, but it’s also fitting for another reason: Family Gathering echoes Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Spoon River is a 1915 poetry collection where each poem is an epitaph spoken by deceased citizens of (fictional) Spoon River, Illinois, who reflect on the drama, scandals, and tension of the town. While Masters has each speaker reflect on their life and their small town, Chappell focuses on family dynamics. The power of Spoon River came from rejecting the conflation of “small town” with “wholesome and orderly;” Masters wrote with a more realistic view where the people in small towns were as flawed and sinful as urban dwellers, buffeted by fate and their actions like anyone else.

Similarly, Chappell doesn’t write of some idyllic Appalachian family, happy and loving as they sit down to a dinner of cornbread, chicken and dumplings, and fresh greens from granny’s garden. He returns throughout the poems to Aunt Lavinia’s horrid casserole, the tension between Uncle Einar and Aunt Wilma, and the character failures of family members. Avoiding the warmed-over Appalachian imagery gives readers a more complex glimpse of life in Appalachia. Aunts and uncles who are poor cooks are surely a commonality to large families, not to mention the moral failings; presenting this reality balances against the regional stereotypes of a “simple and poor, but proud” family dynamic. It’s gratifying to read.

Chappell can also be light-hearted and gives readers more than a glimpse at the negative parts of life. Relatives in Family Gathering philosophize on the importance of controlling the body’s desires (“It hankers after sensations of every kind/With what amounts to greed/And for that reason must be sternly disciplined”) and of love (“It’s not a gross machine/That roars foul smoke and gobbles gasoline”). While the words are wise, they come from a drunken, rambling Uncle Wallace.

Like Spoon River, Chappell will end some poems with a darker twist. In “It’s a Gift,” he describes Cousin Hatfield as a know-it-all who thinks he can easily solve any problem, personal or national. Then, in the last stanza, Chappell wonders how much of that “easy grace” is a ruse:

Perhaps he’s one of us inside.

Perhaps a grievous error crumbles his pride

Or a hidden sorrow gnaws him bit by bit.

Perhaps. I wouldn’t count on it.

But grace isn’t absent from Family Gathering. Aunt Agnes personifies an ideal as “The Strain of Mercy;” she loves everyone in the family despite recognizing their faults:

As if our faults had no connection

With the persons we are within.

She doesn’t pretend an ignorance

Of our dark collective sin;

She only believes that circumstance

Has gone against us every one,

That by blind forces we were driven.

In an interview, Chappell said, “Every book that deals with place is also a criticism of place, but not simply a wholesale thrashing.” By showing familial tensions, he can show struggle and love, conflict and morals. A thrashing would be too harsh, but glossing over the difficulty of a place gives it too much credit. Family gossip, loneliness, infidelity, and rebellion, after all, can fracture families, but their resolution also bonds them together.

Much in life may be out of our control, but in those moments, family can be a steady foundation for us all.

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Anthony Hennen is a co-founder of expatalachians and managing editor at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina.