When Kentucky writer James Still died in 2001, three months short of his 95th birthday, he left behind a rich legacy of novels, short stories and poetry — and a mysterious manuscript in a leather briefcase that was held together with a belt.
That manuscript — a haunting and sometimes disturbing novel — has just been published as Chinaberry (University Press of Kentucky, $21.95). But much of the story remains a mystery.
Silas House, the author of Clay's Quilt and other acclaimed novels, puzzled over the manuscript while editing it for publication.
"I've spent five or six years with this book, and I still don't know what to think about it," he said. But he does know this: Chinaberry is a master fully written story about the complexities of love, relationships, childhood and memory.
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Still's literary advisers and adopted daughter, Teresa Reynolds, approached House in 2004 about editing the manuscript. He said he was both honored and intimidated at the prospect of finishing the final novel of his literary hero.
Still's work had always inspired House, who grew up in Laurel and Leslie counties and had dreamed of becoming a writer. The title of House's 2003 novel, A Parchment of Leaves, is taken from one of Still's poems.
House, 39, met Still a couple of times at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where Still lived for nearly 70 years. House was then an aspiring writer; Still was in his 90s and a bit gruff. "He certainly didn't suffer fools, which I totally was in his presence," House said.
Still was an economical writer; his few words were carefully chosen and arranged in precise rhythms. House said the manuscript's chapters seemed almost finished, but they were in no particular order.
"Scenes were written in two or three different versions; it was like the Gospels," he said. "Most of what I did was I found the best things from both versions and put them into one version so that (the story) moved in a more linear fashion.
"I really wanted every single word in the book to be his, and for the most part it is, except sometimes I would have to create transitional sentences," he said. "It would take me weeks to write one sentence because I wanted to capture his rhythm and make sure every word was as carefully chosen as he would have chosen it."
House said the biggest decision he made was the title: Chinaberry, the name of the Texas ranch that is as much a character in the book as any of the humans.
Still apparently began writing the story in the mid-1980s, biographer Carol Boggess said. I interviewed Still for a couple of hours late on the afternoon of his 80th birthday — July 16, 1986 — for a profile in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that piece, I wrote that Still said he was "hard at work writing a book he isn't ready to discuss."
He was still working on it almost 15 years later; the manuscript was in his hospital room when he died.
Unlike his other writing, Chinaberry is not set in the Eastern Kentucky mountains. It takes place in the wide-open cotton and cattle land of rural Texas nearly a century ago, and in Still's native Alabama.
Chinaberry is about the epic journey of an unnamed boy of 13, who often seems much younger. He leaves Alabama with family friends for a summer of picking cotton in Texas. During the next three months, his life is transformed.
"I think it's a love story on so many levels," House said. "It's a love story between the author and childhood, between a person and a place. I think there's a palpable love for Texas in the book, and for a way of life that's gone forever."
At the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between the boy and the Chinaberry ranch's owner, Anson Winters, and his second wife, Lurie. Anson virtually adopts the boy, treating him as a replacement for the young, handicapped son whose death he still grieves.
"What's so brilliant about the book is that (Still) doesn't make any judgments; it's a psychological thriller in a way," said House, who found some scenes almost creepy.
"Ultimately, it's up to the reader to decide what is really going on here, and that's the brilliant thing James Still does," he said. "He gives the reader all the power. It's a great book-club book for that reason because you can sit and discuss it on and on."
Perhaps the biggest mystery about Chinaberry is this: How much is fiction, and how much is Still's autobiography?
The boy and Still share the same Alabama home. The boy's father is a "horse doctor" who lived in Texas as a young man, as Still's father was and did. "There's all this autobiography in the book, but nobody knows if the main thing is true," House said.
Among the manuscript pages in the battered briefcase, House found notes that Still had made on things he read about selective memory. "He seemed to be struggling with what was true memory," he said.
Whether it's autobiography, fiction or some combination of both, House thinks Chinaberry is a worthy companion to Still's masterpiece novel River of Earth, published in 1940 to national acclaim.
"It's such a cinematic book; it would make a wonderful movie," House said of Chinaberry. "I still don't understand it, but I think that's sort of the beauty of it."