Upon the hill above the kirk at moon rise she did stand
To tend her sheep that Samhain eve, with rowan staff in hand.
And where she’s been and what she’s seen, no living soul may know
And when she’s come back home, she will be changed – oh!
I picked up Sharyn McCrumb’s The Songcatcher several years ago when on holiday in Malaysia, where my husband is originally from. Like me, he has a slightly confused cultural identity: both of us feel very much like outsiders playing a part. A huge part of the barrier is linguistic. Language is in so many ways caught up with identity, and not being able to speak a particular language, especially one that you appear as though you should be able to speak, is something that immediately positions you as someone who is not a “real” person of that culture.
When I visited Italy a few years back, I was greeted with open arms by the locals–until they realised that I wasn’t actually a local myself, but a “Coca-Cola“. I had a similar experience in Argentina, and get the same here in Melbourne quite regularly. I look the part–but it’s little more than a masquerade. My husband’s identity is even more complex. He’s from a Malaysian-Chinese family that identifies strongly as Chinese, and yet his command of Cantonese is only good for ordering at restaurants. His Malay is non-existent, and this disconnect between actual and projected identities was problematised further by the fact that he was actually born in Malaysia, and therefore should somehow know both the language and the culture.
Returning home to a place you are connected with–no matter how distantly–is not always easy. The world does not exist in stasis, and I’m sure that the Calabria my grandparents fondly reminisce about is not the Calabria of today. Similarly, the Malaysia experienced through the eyes of a toddler is not the one experienced through those of an adult.
The Songcatcher is a novel of both home and homecoming, and through a number of different viewpoints and across two different timelines explores what it is that makes a place somewhere we might call home, no matter how difficult our relationship with it might be. The Rowan Stave, from which I’ve quoted at the beginning of this post, is what threads it all together. Passed down from Malcolm McCourry in the mid eighteenth century to his present day descendants, it’s a linguistic cue that indicates belonging. We see just how much when Scottish-born Malcolm, upon learning the poem at sea on the way to America, substitutes “staff” for “stave”–an unthinkable mistake.
Malcolm’s thread continues with his settling in the Appalachians and the life he leads there; meanwhile, running parallel to this is the present-day story of folk musician Lark McCourry, who is returning home after hearing that her elderly father, with whom she has always had a turbulent relationship, is ailing. However, Lark’s plane goes down on the mountains and Lark, though uninjured, is stranded there while she waits for the local search and rescue team to save her. The Rowan Stave becomes in a way her saviour: it’s what she uses to connect herself back to the real world while she’s lost in the wilderness, and furthermore, if rescued, she plans to record it for posterity. The song, and others like it, forms a key part of her own identity: these narrative songs are in a way a home for a woman who feels she does not have one.
The value of songs as part of the oral tradition is given plenty of emphasis in the book beyond The Rowan Stave. We hear about the Dreamtime, for example, and the way that the world was sung into being. In another instance, the changing of a single word in another song is enough to identify someone as a murderer: if someone sings of a dead girl’s petticoat as “red-stained” rather than the standard “red-striped”, then perhaps it is because they have base reasons, we hear. Language can be used, then, as a way of determining whether someone belongs in a group, or whether they don’t–and this is further explored in the idea of whether people should be allowed to copyright and record traditional songs, and what the act of doing so might actually signify. Is Lark renouncing her identity by making a family song available to everyone?
This idea of language and outsider-ness is further explored, maybe a little unsubtly, but still interestingly in a scene involving a discussion between a hostel owner and a traveller from New York:
“This is my first visit to Appa-lay-chia.”
Baird said gently, “Well, folks in these parts call it Appa-latch-a.”
Eeyore shrugged, as if the information did not interest him. “In New York we say Appa-lay-chia.”
“You know,” he said to Eeyore, gearing up to his lecture in genial conversational tones, “over in North Ireland once I visited a beautiful walled city that lies east of Donegal and west of Belfast. Now for the last thousand years or so the Irish people who built that city have called it Derry…but the British, who conquered Ireland a few hundred years back, they refer to that same city as London-derry…But you need to understand this: when you choose what name you call that city, you are making a political decision…You are telling some people they can trust you and other people that they can’t…Now I reckon Appalachia is a word like that…So you go on and call this place Appa-lay-cha if you want to. But you need to know that by doing that you have made a political decision.”
(Incidentally, this led to an hour or so of researching the Appalachian dialect, a dialect that as an Aussie I’m not very familiar with.)
McCrumb certainly pits the Appalachian community against the rest of America, and it’s interesting to see just how much language is used to signify belonging not just to a particular biological family, but to a wider social one.
That said, I have to admit that the narrative as a whole didn’t quite come together for me. The book features a second plane crash situation that is initially temporally ambiguous–is it occurring after Lark’s accident, or at the same time, or is something weird and magical going on here?–but when the issue is resolved I felt a little let down. Similarly, the switching from Malcolm’s voice to a series of letters written by his son made for an awkward transition, and only in part because it involved reading a good fifteen pages in italics. I did, however, forgive a lot of this after reading the afterward in which the author notes that much of what is in the story actually stems from her research into her own family history: truth really can be stranger than fiction.
This was my first foray into McCrumb’s work, but I found it tremendously engaging and thoughtful, and plan to seek out more from her.
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Other books by Sharyn McCrumb: