Day Nine: Briscoe’s Mother, Jules Jenkins, and Blair Mountain

Please visit the gorgeous post over on Instagram created by A Blue Box Full of Books. She pairs Southern-Fried Woolf with a copy of Mrs. Dalloway! It gives me goosebumps to see my work side by side with Woolf’s.

One of the quirkiest characters in my book is Briscoe’s mother Jules. Let’s get into it.

Julia Buttersford Jenkins “of the Massachusetts Jenkins,” she tells singer Velvet Wickens when she meets her for the first time. (If you’re guessing that I borrowed her last name from Taylor Jenkins Reid, you’d be right. But please don’t tell Taylor. I’m pretty sure I made up Buttersford, but it’s just begging to be a name, so no regrets. It gives upper crusty, which is what I was shooting for. ;-))

Why is Jules from the East coast? That’s easy. I was born in New Jersey of parents who moved there from West Virginia for work. I spent the first eight or so years of my life there, and it holds a special place in my heart.

Why does Jules speak with so many accents? She suits her accent to the situation. She may not care about what she wears, but she cares about how she sounds. She enjoys it, and I quite admire people who have a wardrobe of accents. When she pulls out her Southern accent at the conference, it’s because she knows that’s what the attendees will respond to. When she greets V. with her best East coast accent, it’s to intimidate her.

Jules is an original. She’s outspoken, lusty, and smart though she does live alone on Blair Mountain. Maybe you know that Blair Mountain that I mention in my book is real, although I don’t know about the current condition of the fire lookout tower and the cabin.

Will you indulge me in a quick aside about forest fires, first? Every few years it seemed a forest fire threatened the mountains where we lived in West Virginia (my parents moved back there after the plant where my father worked closed down when I was about eight). One fire came so close to our house that volunteers wet the roof to keep the house from catching on fire. The fire did engulf the cemetery on the hill just beside the house. I was heartbroken because I have a set of twin brothers who died at birth buried there, and I was only ten(ish) during the fire and very tenderhearted. (Of course there was only a superficial burn of the cemetery, and no permanent damage was done.)

Why did Briscoe’s mother end up in West Virginia? When I first encountered Blair Mountain as a child, it was peaceful and pastoral, unlike its brutal history. It was the site of  The Battle of Blair Mountain which was fought between coal miners who wanted to unionize and coal company owners who retaliated with deadly force.

If you know anything about West Virginia, you know about the nasty doings of those coal companies, how they treated their workers like beasts and made them so financially dependent on them that they couldn’t leave. (If you’ve ever read Irving Stone’s novel about Van Gogh, Lust for Life  – I highly recommend it – it’s much the same scenario that the miners face in that book. It’s probably another reason Lust is one of my favorites. )

(Can you tell I had relatives who were coal miners? My father’s father, Thomas Jefferson Sizemore, was called The Coal Miner Poet.)

I remember visiting the grounds of the lookout tower on Blair Mountain as a young girl first with a church group, not knowing the site’s history. We had our church picnic there and if memory serves, one of the ministers picked up a spent bullet casing and said something about the battle, but it didn’t stick with me at the time. I think I was more charmed with exploring the cabin that the tower keeper lived in, wishing I could live in it. I did climb partially up the tower, but I don’t remember if I was too scared to continue up (heights!) or if I was called away. Likely it was the former.

Now, of course, I know more about the battle and the lives lost. It’s sobering.

Thankfully, the mountain is now on the registry of historical places after a coal mining company allegedly tried to decapitate the mountain, initially getting that designation reversed.

 In my mind the mountain will ever remain that peaceful place on that day of the church picnic, the place with Jack in the Pulpits flowers and Queen Anne’s lace just off the path, and the sound of country gospel as the church people sang “I’ll Fly Away” and “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” accompanied by two men with acoustic guitars that were decidedly not in tune with one another, not that it hindered the singers’ zeal.

I will always see, in memory, the huge green utility wire spool laid on its side, a table for holding fried chicken, corn bread, and jugs of sweet tea. And the hand pump where we were instructed to wash our hands before eating. Its action enthralled me, and I wanted to play with it, though I was too well behaved to do that.

In my imagination, someone who Jules works with at the fictional University of Nashville knew of this place and offered it to her for the duration of her Woolf project which was only supposed to take a short time but that, I think it’s plain, may never get finished. She would have to give up a life that she’s quite happy living if she did finish it. The incentive is just not there.

Since Jules is from the East coast, you’d think she’d want to return there and find a real lighthouse instead of her makeshift one. Maybe not, though. We’re only given scraps of her life: her parents owned a soup company and were disappointed that she wanted nothing to do with it. The parents died in a boating accident before Briscoe could meet them. Are you as curious as I am to know what that was all about? I’m not planning a sequel any time soon (read: never), but I have questions.

One of the things I find most touching about Jules is that she carries on an “affair” with her own husband behind her daughter’s back, presumably to keep her daughter from false hopes that the family will ever live together again.

It’s not a real failing on Jules’ part, not being warm and motherly. It’s just who she is. Since Jules needs no one, she cannot comprehend that her daughter might need her. And yet that’s what makes Michael all the more alluring to Briscoe. Briscoe falls for his stage presence as much as anyone. She believes that his excess passion shown onstage carries through his life. She doesn’t understand that’s the only time he feels.

We get a big hint of this when he wipes his mouth with his shirt after she kisses him for the first time. I want to beg her to run then, but she just doesn’t know any better. (Is it just me or do you think that she marries WAY too young?)

Jules and her daughter bond over matters of the head, not the heart. This book is as much about a young woman who wants her mother’s attention as it is a woman who wants her husband’s undying love. It’s about learning what you can and can’t live without. I can’t say more, or I might issue spoilers, and that’s a no-no.

Though Jules sees the torment her daughter is going through with Michael, she lets her daughter live her own life, even when she can see that her daughter is coping with very unhealthy methods indeed. She believes in giving people the freedom she herself insists on. She just doesn’t see it as her place to interfere beyond the few attempts that we see.

I find Jules refreshing. She lives life on her own terms and yet somehow comes off as commanding, sometimes intimidating. She’s an expert in her field, and relinquishes a fortune because it comes with conditions. She fully claims her life, and I can’t help but admire that.

Who’s your favorite character in SFW?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.