Staff review: Of Mice and Men + Cataloochee

Reviewed by Ward

What better time to catch up with the classics or immerse yourself in something new than a lazy summer afternoon? I’ve had the beautifully executed Steinbeck Centennial boxed set sitting on the shelf for at least half a year now, but didn’t get around to actually reading any of it until a couple of weeks ago, finally (and thankfully!) giving Of Mice and Men a try. Wayne Caldwell’s Cataloochee I picked up on a visit to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park earlier this summer, and regardless of whether you are familiar with the region or not, Caldwell’s lucid writing will surely convince you of the Smokies’ rugged beauty.

John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men

Set in California during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men is the shortest of Steinbeck‘s Dust Bowl novels, and tells the story of migrant workers George Milton and Lennie Small, two of the most sympathetic and memorable—and, in the case of simpleton and Big Friendly Giant Lennie, heartbreaking—characters I have ever come across in the American literary canon. From the moment their names first appear on the page in a tranquil poolside setting until the story’s harsh yet inevitable ending in the exact same spot, the reader is drawn into their brotherly story of hardship and struggle, of fragile hopes and shattered dreams, confronted with the brutal truth that dreams, as modest and tangible as they may be, don’t bear fruit against a backdrop this harsh. Too short to be crowned the Great American Novel, labeling Of Mice and Men the Great American Novella would not be too much praise.

Wayne Caldwell – Cataloochee

Cataloochee is the debut novel of Wayne Caldwell, and takes its title from a remote and secluded North Carolina valley in a region that has now become part of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. In this Eden-like setting, on the one hand serene and unspoiled, and on the other hand hard and unforgiving as only Nature can be, we follow the lives of several families as they try to scrape a living from the unrelenting soil. Spanning several generations, from the history of some of the first families to settle there in the early-to-mid 1800s until the region’s official designation as National Park in 1928, we get a glimpse of mountain life in all its hardship and its beauty, and see how neither the valley or its people can escape the yoke of progress and civilization, for better or for worse. From harvest to hunting and from moonshining to murder, Caldwell, a North Carolina native himself, manages to get the feel of the place just right, and has provided us with a wonderful window into Appalachian life of yore.