The Legacy of Bear Mountain by Janie Mae Jones McKinley is a memoir-style collection of short stories about her grandparents and their life on Bear Mountain in North Carolina. What I would classify as Creative Nonfiction, The Legacy of Bear Mountain brings startling realism to life without electricity or running water. Stories about the Great Depression, faith, and cultural change place the reader among the “mountain people”, and remind us of how different the world was only a short time ago.
McKinley writes about Bear Mountain intimately and with an obvious surplus of knowledge. She writes as only one with great respect and adoration can, and both of these qualities bleed into her writing. McKinley has a fair command of prose. I would not call it elegant or beautiful, but she writes simply, coherently, and as fact which serves her style well. McKinley does a great job of mentioning the right information. Her knowledge of mountain culture and history is both astonishing and fascinating.
I am not often drawn into a memoir, but McKinley forces her reader to see the love she and her grandparents have for both Bear Mountain and for each other.
The book is in desperate need of a professional editor or two. There are a few small grammatical errors, but what makes this book difficult to read is the formatting. The cover is lackluster. The view from Bear Mountain is, I’m sure, beautiful, but the impact does not transfer well in the low-quality photo that serves as the cover. The cover also has three different fonts, a different color for each font, and all of the words are piled at the bottom of the page. If I had to guess, I would say that McKinley did this herself. It appears to be done in “Paint” or a similar program. The book is worthy of a much higher quality cover.
The second issue is the placement of what I’m calling “Content Boxes”. These are boxes that show up in the middle of the page to provide background information. Some of these boxes are very useful, for example sometime McKinley utilizes them to explain an older tool or to elaborate on the slang in dialogue. Occasionally, the information in the boxes seems like fluff. My biggest problem with the content boxes is that they interrupt the flow of the story. McKinley does a wonderful job of drawing her reader in and immersing them in mountain life. The content boxes can snap you out of that. They would be more appropriate as footnotes or in an index, not mid page.
The final issue I have is that, at the end of each chapter, there are “respond” sections. There are questions with lines available to write responses to the chapter, or to recall similar experiences in your own life. I am not sure why these sections are here, but I do not believe they help the book. If anything, they harm the book. Planned response sections are the province of self-help books. I did two of the sections while reading the book, and they harmed my experience. I believe McKinley may have wanted others to elaborate on their faith and experiences to see how God has worked in their life and I admire her dedication to her faith. But these sections break the narrative, and they should be removed altogether.
An excellent book, and an absolute read for fans of creative non-fiction. The drawbacks are worth reading the book, and with some revision work the piece could be very beautiful. McKinley should be very proud of her work and her heritage, I hope to see more work from her in the future.