Y’all know that the Smoky Mountains are my happy place, so I’m delighted to welcome Michelle Shocklee back to the blog to talk about the inspiration behind her new Smoky Mountains historical novel, Appalachian Song!
APPALACHIAN SONG by Michelle Shocklee
GENRE: Historical Fiction (Christian)
PUBLISHER: Tyndale House
RELEASE DATE: October 3, 2023
Forever within the memories of my heart.
Always remember, you are perfectly loved.
Bertie Jenkins has spent forty years serving as a midwife for her community in the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. Out of all the mothers she’s tended, none affects her more than the young teenager who shows up on her doorstep, injured, afraid, and expecting, one warm June day in 1943. As Bertie and her four sisters tenderly nurture Songbird back to health, the bond between the childless midwife and the motherless teen grows strong. But soon Songbird is forced to make a heartbreaking decision that will tear this little family apart.
Thirty years later, the day after his father’s funeral, Walker Wylie is stunned to learn he was adopted as an infant. The famous country singer enlists the help of adoption advocate Reese Chandler in the hopes of learning why he was abandoned by his birth parents. With the only clue he has in hand, Walker and Reese head deep into the Appalachian Mountains to track down Bertie Jenkins, the midwife who holds the secrets to Walker’s past.
The Walker Sisters of the Great Smoky Mountains
by Michelle Shocklee, author of Appalachian Song
A Rocky Mountain Girl Meets the Smokies
I’m a Rocky Mountain girl, born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I like to say the Rockies are in my blood. There is nothing more beautiful to me than a rugged mountain range, covered in the autumn gold of turning aspen trees. So I was a bit surprised at how quickly I fell in love with the Great Smoky Mountains. They are as different from the Rockies as mountains can be, yet they hold a unique beauty that is unsurpassed.
My husband and I first visited the Smokies in 2018. Because I enjoy hiking in my beloved Rockies, I couldn’t wait to see if the Smokies would satisfy my soul the way the mountains of my childhood did.
I was not disappointed.
We stopped at the Visitors Center, where we learned about the Walker Sisters Cabin, a mile-and-a-half hike through woods and hills. We set off, relishing fall foliage that was different from the Rockies, but gorgeous, nonetheless. After an hour or so, we rounded a bend and beheld the ancient-looking, weathered cabin we sought.
The old homestead captivated me almost immediately. As I stood there gazing at it, imagining the people who lived there long ago, I knew I would set a book there someday. I’m pleased to say my new release, Appalachian Song, is that book.
The Walker Family
John Walker began courting Margaret Jane King in 1860. As they planned their wedding, the unrest between the South and the North erupted. Although Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861, John joined the Union Army, as did many East Tennesseans. Despite being wounded and captured during the war, he made it home to Margaret and they married in 1866.
By 1877, John and Margaret had six children. John had acquired a small one-room cabin and land in Little Greenbrier Cove from Margaret’s family shortly after they married. The cozy home was made of tulip-poplar logs, insulated with mud and rock. Being an industrious man, John soon constructed a barn, corncrib, smokehouse, pig pen, apple barn, and blacksmith shop. A springhouse on a nearby creek kept milk, butter, and root vegetables cool throughout the year. As the family grew, he added a kitchen, complete with a large stone fireplace, a sleeping loft, and a porch. He planted orchards with more than 20 varieties of apples, as well as peaches, cherries, and plums. Feeding the large family took many chickens, sheep, goats, and hogs, as well as produce from the enormous garden behind the house. One of the sisters once said, “Our farm produces everything we need except sugar, soda, coffee, and salt.”
John and Margaret eventually had eleven children—seven daughters and four sons. The sons bought farms of their own and moved away, but only one of the daughters married. The other six sisters lived in the cabin in Little Greenbrier their entire lives.
How the Walker Sisters Became Famous
After John and Margaret passed away, six of the sisters continued to live on the homestead. We probably would have never heard of the Walker sisters if the idea for a national park in the Great Smokies hadn’t taken root.
In 1923, Knoxville resident Ann Davis and her husband Willis returned from a trip visiting several Western national parks. Ann was convinced their beautiful part of the United States needed one, and she took her proposal to leaders in the area, especially around Knoxville. The idea eventually gained congressional approval, but to create the national park, nearly a half million acres of land had to be acquired. Buying all that land proved difficult. Some 6,000 small farms, large tracts, and other miscellaneous parcels had to be surveyed, appraised, and sometimes condemned in court. Some mountain homesteaders, like the Walker sisters, had no interest in selling. The sisters held out as long as they could, but when the government threatened to seize the property, they agreed to sell their 122-acre farm, with one stipulation: they must be allowed to remain in their home until their deaths.
Because the sisters now found themselves living within the borders of a national park, they were no longer able to raise livestock, grow crops, or hunt. As visitors flocked to the new park, the Walker homestead became known as Five Sisters Cove. Thousands of people hiked to the cabin, where they were greeted by the aging sisters. The women sold handmade items such as children’s toys, crocheted doilies, fried apple pies, and poems. In April 1946 they were featured in the Saturday Evening Post, introducing their mountain lifestyle to the rest of the country.
By 1951, only two sisters remained living. Greeting tourists became too much for the elderly women, and they asked the park superintendent to remove the “Visitors Welcome” sign. The last sister passed away in 1966 and the home became an historic landmark in the park.
While Appalachian Song is not based on the lives of the Walker Sisters, their story inspired the characters of Bertie Jenkins and her four sisters. As I wrote about a pregnant teenager arriving on the Jenkins’s doorstep, injured and alone, I remembered reading how the Walker sisters cared for a baby boy during the 1930s. Descriptions of the fictional Jenkins cabin match those of the real Walker cabin, and the lives the two families led have many similarities, including Margaret Walker’s training as a midwife. It felt right for Bertie to be a midwife too.
I hope readers of Appalachian Song enjoy “visiting” Appalachia with Bertie, Songbird, and the Jenkins sisters. If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Walker Sisters Cabin, not far from Gatlinburg, you will not be disappointed.
I sure wasn’t.
Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels, including Count the Nights by Stars, a Christianity Today fiction book award winner, and Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been featured in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Connect with Michelle at her website.
Other Featured Books by Michelle Shocklee
Tyndale House is offering a print copy of Appalachian Song by Michelle Shocklee to one of my readers! (US only. Void where prohibited by law or logistics.) This giveaway is subject to Reading Is My SuperPower’s giveaway policies which can be found here. Enter via the Rafflecopter form below.
What about you? What makes you want to read Appalachian Song by Michelle Shocklee?