Engaging North Carolina Non-fiction

07 Aug 2020

A poignant tribute, a multi-generational political saga and an insightful biography

By Lewis Bowling

Sara Sousa, The Woodstove Widow

A memory Sara Sousa cherishes is of her former husband, Greg, chopping wood and keeping their woodstove stocked during cold weather in their Durham home. After Greg’s death, Sara learned how to chop the wood herself, and today this task is a way of honoring Greg, who passed away from brain tumors in 2016. The heroic struggle for life by Greg, and Sara’s equally heroic and inspiring resolve to honor her beloved husband and raise her children, Belle and Abe, without the physical presence of Greg, a water resource engineer, is detailed in Sara Sousa’s The Woodstove Widow.

Sousa provides an intimate and heart-wrenching look into her husband’s valiant journey from his brain tumor diagnosis in 2012 to his death four years later. Some of the book is in Greg’s own words, as he kept a journal of his battle through his chemotherapy, radiation, and three brain surgeries for as long as possible. But the majority of the book is from the journal Sara kept. Throughout the four-year struggle, Sara endeavored to maintain as much normalcy as possible for her family, especially her children. Greg also, as long as he was able, used exercise, mostly running and biking, to fight the cancer spreading in his body. Well before his diagnosis, Greg was an avid runner and biker, an elite athlete.

A hospice nurse, Sara has written a moving tribute to Greg, a book that may have you in tears at various points, but a book that is also uplifting and inspiring. Sara’s narrative demonstrates the importance of support during such trying times; her family, two faith communities, and a host of friends helped her then and continue to do so today.

Rob Christensen, The Rise and Fall of the Branchhead Boys: North Carolina’s Scott Family & the Era of Progressive Politics

Kerr Scott was a North Carolina Governor and a United States Senator, Bob Scott also became a governor, while Meg Scott Phipps was state agriculture commissioner. It was sort of like North Carolina’s version of the Kennedy political dynasty in Massachusetts. The Scotts were liberal politicians supported by rural voters, what became known as the Branchhead Boys, voters who lived at the head of the branches of tributaries, people whose roots were in the soil.

Emphasis in the book is placed on Kerr Scott, governor from 1949 to 1953 and a senator from 1954 to 1958, the patriarch. Kerr Scott, from Haw River in Alamance County, campaigned for governor by stating, “The people are demanding that something be done to lift them out of the mud.” And that’s exactly what Governor Kerr Scott did with his “Scott Roads” program. In 1949, when he became governor, only 5,100 of the 52,000 secondary roads in the state were hard-surfaced, and all those dirt roads would become so muddy at times that getting to hospitals and schools would be almost impossible. So many roads were paved during Kerr Scott’s time as governor they became known as “Scott Roads.” During his four years as governor, daily vehicle-miles because of better roads increased from 1.8 million miles to 5.8 million miles. Farmers were able to get their products to markets, the percentage of rural births in hospitals increased by 20%, the numbers of voters increased dramatically, and school attendance went up over 10%. This is just one example Christensen points out of what a Scott in statewide office did for North Carolina.

But the possible end of the Scott political machine came in 2003 when Meg Scott Phipps was asked to resign as agriculture commissioner due to campaign irregularities, and she served time in prison on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. She was released in 2007. Her father, Governor Bob Scott, passed away in 2009. Rob Christensen’s book, the winner of the 2019 Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction, offers a fascinating look into the Scott family’s legacy in North Carolina.

Jeffrey Meyers, Robert Frost: A Biography  

Robert Frost: A Biography is one of the very best biographies of a poet I have ever read. The book covers extensively Frost’s first 40 years, when he was unable to get much of his work published, having to farm and teach to support his family. But it is a full life biography, covering his poetry in detail as well as also his personal life.

Robert Frost loved North Carolina, even running away to the Dismal Swamp area of the state as a young man. He later spent time in the Kitty Hawk area, visited Oxford to see his good friend and editor, Richard H. Thornton, and made many visits to UNC-Chapel Hill for lectures and readings. In fact, folks around Chapel Hill got so used to seeing the famous poet on campus each spring that they often said, “Spring is here when Frost comes.”

Frost’s poems are analyzed for meaning in Meyer’s book. For example, one of his most well-known poems, Stopping by Woods
on a Snowy Evening, “is the temptation of death, even suicide, symbolized by the woods that are filling up with snow on the darkest evening of the year.” Frost even knew he was writing a masterpiece when he wrote this poem, calling it “my best bid for remembrance.” For sure, Jeffrey Meyer’s biography is one of the best remembrances of Frost.  

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