A new children’s book set in rural Haywood County captures the essence of a vanished time in the mountains.
“Ernestine’s Milky Way,” Alabama writer Kerry Madden-Lunsford’s second picture book, describes a brave 5-year-old asked to deliver milk to a neighbor in need. Set on a Maggie Valley farm during World War II, the book is based on a true story Madden-Lunsford heard from the late Ernestine Upchurch, a woman the author describes as her “mountain mother.”
Madden-Lunsford, director of the creative writing program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has also written four young adult novels. She will read and discuss her new book next week at City Lights Bookstore, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16.
“I’ve been wanting to write this book since Ernestine first told me the story in 2009,” Madden-Lunsford said during a telephone interview last week. “The title came to me immediately, and I knew it would be a picture book for kids.” However, it wasn’t until she asked Upchurch to tell her story again during a 2013 visit that Madden-Lunsford began work in earnest.
Writing a book for young children is much different than writing a novel, Madden-Lunsford said, pointing to a quote from Australian children’s author Mem Fox: “Writing a picture book is like writing ‘War and Peace’ in Haiku.” Of “Ernestine,” Madden-Lunsford said, “I wrote many, many drafts.” An early draft was closer to 1,200 words. My editor got it down to 800 and told me I could let the illustrator do some of the work.”
Madden-Lunsford worked with two editors before “Ernestine” was published last month by Random House’s Schwartz-Wade children’s books: Stephanie Pitts, who bought the book and found illustrator Emily Sutton in York, England; and Lee Wade, who added the cornbread recipe and an editor’s note about the real Ernestine.
“Both Stephanie and Lee were so wonderful in helping to get ‘Ernestine’ out into the world,” Madden-Lunsford said.
The author also has high praise for Sutton’s illustrations. “I’m thrilled with the artwork,” she said. “I can’t even believe how well Emily captured the mountains around Maggie Valley based on the photos I sent her.”
“Ernestine” marks the fourth time, Madden-Lunsford has located her characters in Maggie Valley. Her young adult books, the trilogy of “Gentle’s Holler” (2005), “Louisiana’s Song” (2007) and “Jessie’s Mountain” (2008), follow the life of the fictional Weems family in the early 1960s and are set in Maggie Valley, she says, because she “fell in love” with the town’s name after a long ago visit.
According to Madden-Lunsford, she wrote “Gentle’s Holler” during a time when she was living in California and missing the Smoky Mountains. “Since I couldn’t go to the Smokies, I decided to go there in my head every day and write a story of this girl who loved her mountains and her song-writing.”
Madden-Lunsford’s own affection for the Smokies developed while she was a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It was there she met her husband, Kiffen Lunsford, whose stories of his Buncombe County roots and childhood as one of 13 children provided Madden with plenty of background material to tell the story of the Weems family, a tight-knit clan short on money but long on love – and kids – through the eyes of 12-year-old Livy Two. Her narrator’s name comes from the fact that the girl is named after an older sister, Olivia, who died at birth. That missing sibling (“Livy One”) serves as a sort of conscience and confidant for Livy Two, who spends a lot of time in her secret place high in a red maple tree making up songs and stories. Livy Two’s odd circumstance – having the same name as a sister who died – was directly inspired by Lunsford, who shares his name with an older brother who died about 10 years before Madden’s husband was born.
Lunsford’s great-uncle was famed mountain musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford. His father, the late Jim Lunsford, also a musician, played with Reno and Smiley, and a sister, Tomi Lunsford, is a singer-songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee. Kiffen Lunsford’s own musical talents will be on display next week at his wife’s book-signing, where he will liven things up by clogging and singing a song about a groundhog, or “whistle-pig,” one of the animals Ernestine encounters on her early-morning journey through the woods to her neighbor’s house.
Madden-Lunsford said she’s pleased that she completed the book in time to share it with the real Ernestine, who died in August 2017. “Ernestine got to see some of Emily’s beautiful artwork as well,” she said.
This is a dazzling book, and one local grandparents should love reading to their grandchildren, as it will give them an opportunity to talk about memories from their own childhoods, such as wood cook stoves and spring houses. From its stunning opening illustration to its very last page, “Ernestine’s Milky Way,” literally paints a picture of long-ago mountain life.
Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.