Sloane’s short, sweet first novel recalls bygone days in a familiar place
It’s not about Rappahannock. So says Bruce Sloane of his recently self-published e-book novel, a short and sweet series of snapshots called “Tales of Shirt Tail Hollow.” But really, it is — and it’s worthwhile reading for anyone who might have forgotten the simple joy, and earnest adventure, of living in this place.
We’ll let Sloane’s first email about his e-book (downloadable from Amazon.com for $2.99) explain: “The book tells of the exploits and adventures of a young girl, Hope, growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia after World War II. Her mother, Grace, worked hard to fix up their run-down house. Hope and her friend, Earl, waded in creeks and explored the woods. They met and sometimes made friends with cats, dogs, piglets, skunks, crows, and friendly neighbors. They milked cows and tried to ride them, too, and bought groceries at the local Country Store.
“If this book sounds like someplace you may be familiar with,” he adds, “I wouldn’t be at all surprised.”
The book doesn’t take controversial or political or cultural stands — it’s simply a nature- and wonder-infused collection of stories about an 11-year-old girl and her widowed mother who decide to escape the hot postwar summers in their apartment in Northern Virginia (where Hope’s mom works as a school teacher) by taking a plunge — for $2,600 — on 32 acres and a four-room, two-story cottage next to the newly created Shenandoah National Park. It takes more of a child’s view than an adult’s perspective, which could make you think it’s a children’s book — but Sloane, writing about a time when books were still more important than genres, doesn’t make the distinction.
It is relevant to note that Sloane’s wife, Joy, first came to Rappahannock County with her widowed mother not long after World War II — to the very end of Hull School Road, off Old Hollow, which hugs the North Fork of the Thornton River until it ends at a chain across the hiking trail of the same name, at the park boundary. Before the park, you could (if you had good horses) take that road all the way to Luray.
Thus Joy Sloane and her mother, Bruce says, were probably among Rappahannock’s first weekenders. When she retired years later from teaching, he says, his mother-in-law moved full time to the house in Old Hollow.
“Some of the stories are just things that happened to me when I was a kid,” Sloane says, but most of the chapters are based on Joy’s early days with her mother in Rappahannock. “But obviously everything’s been fictionalized.”
As with a lot of fiction, there’s a lot of truth and perspective to be had — as Grace decides to buy her first car rather than rely on friends to get to the summer house; when she sells her friends an acre (for the going rate, $145) so that there will be three families at the hollow who want electricity (the minimum before they’d send a surveyor). And as Hope and her friend Earl get to know bears and skunks, feral cats and free-rein dogs; carry drinking water from the spring and, until the day a new electric washing machine arrived, help do the laundry in the yard or the creek with soap and elbow grease; and learning a hard lesson (at least until they’re rescued by a sympathetic neighbor) about hunting.
Sloane says he’d first written up some of the stories Joy had told of her childhood long ago; when he found himself with more time on his hands in recent years (he turned 80 not long ago), he decided to rewrite the old ones and collect some new ones, from his wife and others.
“It was really fun,” says Sloane, who notes that some early readers have suggested he do a sequel or two. “If I sell 150,000 copies, then definitely, yes,” he laughs. Otherwise he says he hasn’t decided.
This isn’t Sloane’s first time as a published author, let alone self-published. He’s written four travel guidebooks over the years, starting with “Cavers, Caves and Caving” in 1977, written back when Sloane, a geologist, worked as a park ranger and park naturalist out west. (He and Joy met at Montana State, when he was a grad student in geology and she was an undergraduate transfer from U.Va.)
More recently he was author of “New Hampshire’s Parklands” in 1985 — the couple lived in New Hampshire for a couple of decades while Sloane worked as a technical writer for the late, great Digital Equipment Corp. — and then “Scenic Driving Virginia” and “Scenic Driving West Virginia,” guidebooks published by Globe Pequot in 1999 and 2002, after the Sloanes finally wound up back in the Virginia of Joy’s youth (and Bruce was briefly editor of this newspaper, too).
Thus the Country Store in “Shirt Tail Hollow” bears some resemblance to the Corner Store — the Sperryville Corner Store of the 1940s and ’50s, that is, when it was your typical full-service grocery, dry goods and hardware store serving residents who came by once a week or so for supplies.
We’ll end by letting Sloane, in his first chapter, explain how the fictional Shirt Tail Hollow got its name — when an electric company surveyor showed up short of a helper, and Hope and Earl volunteered:
All went well for the first half of the job. Then the surveyor suddenly realized that that he was about to run out of marking cloth. His assistant, home with a hangover, usually carried these. The surveyor did not want to quit and come back the next day. Did anyone have some old rags? Nobody did, and nobody wanted to make the trip downhill to Hope’s house just to climb back uphill with some old rags.
But Hope came up with a solution. She was wearing a red, oversized cast-off shirt her grandfather gave her, and it was getting warm in the Virginia sunshine. She grabbed Earl’s pocket knife and cut a ragged swath off the tail of her shirt, which was already hanging out and trailing behind her. She cut the tail into marker-sized strips. “Here — use these!” Hope said, as she handed them to the surveyor.
The surveyor was happy to carry out that suggestion, and the survey continued. However, one shirt tail was not enough to finish marking the boundary. Earl volunteered to let them use cut up his yellow shirt tail. Two shirt tails were not enough. Somewhat reluctantly the surveyor agreed to use the tails of his plaid shirt. Eventually the boundary was marked by parts from three different shirt tails: one red, one yellow, and one plaid (the surveyor’s). When the party returned to the house, their ragged shirt tails (what remained of them) were hanging out in tatters. “It’s a good thing this place isn’t larger,” muttered the surveyor. “We’d have had to start cutting up our pants.”
He thanked them all for their help. Hope and Earl both volunteered to be rod men whenever the surveyor needed an assistant, but he said that they wiggled too much to hold the rod steady, and besides, his current rod man did a fine job when he was sober.
Later that autumn the brilliantly colored leaves slowly faded and fell to the ground, leaving bare trees and gray rocks. But a touch of color remained. A trail of red, yellow, and plaid strips was clearly visible through the woods curving up the hill. Hope, Earl, and Uncle Fred laughed as they looked over the colorful markers. “Guess what?” said Fred. “We’re going to build our house in Shirt Tail Hollow!”