Although it may leave some with a feeling of trepidation, wise folks say that if we live long enough we eventually turn into our parents. The hope that keeps us going is that we may embody the best of them. What prolific writer, story teller and Haywood County native Donald Davis has been able to do is adopt the parable teaching style of his own father, as presented in Cripple Joe: Stories From My Daddy. Whenever Davis is telling a story, the reader learns as much about themselves as he or she learns about the author; Davis’ remarkable, one-of-a-kind voice is almost audible as if he were there in the room telling about his relationship with his complex father.
When Joe Davis was 5 years old (in 1906), he was out with his father and older brothers who were cutting new cedar shingles to replace the roof of a corncrib. He didn’t get to use the ax, but he was fascinated by it. So when they broke for lunch, he lingered, as many children might want to do, to try out the implement for himself. Tragically, he missed his mark and plunged the ax into his own kneecap. As a result, he lost mobility in his leg for his whole life. “How terrible,” a reader might think at first, but what we come to learn in the book is that being sidelined from farm work while maintaining his devotion to the family set Joe up for success in life as a banker. As a community leader and a bank manager with a strong work ethic, he helped the middle class grow in Western North Carolina, opening a mobile, weekend-only bank for the workers building Fontana Dam. He also offered some of the first loans to people of color in WNC. Think, Waynesville’s version of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life.
The spirit and tone of the storytelling here is nothing new if you are a fan of Donald Davis. But there may be more insight than ever into the Davis family dynamics. What I found to be more magical and enthralling was Donald’s own sense of wonder at his father. In his earlier work, Donald’s father always comes across as sensible, respectable and sometimes funny, but we don’t get the character development that this less fictional account and focused view allows. The nonfiction approach also does wonders to give depth to the setting, making this a must read for residents who want an entertaining way to dip their toes into the region’s history. But don’t expect Donald to abandon embellishment entirely.
There is lots of fun here, from the antics of growing up in the unregulated (except by parent) wilds of Haywood County to the wry wit and subtle sense of humor Donald brings to so many of his characters. But there is a full range of emotion and the book is delightfully informative of the history and culture of the region through the lens offered by a mostly reliable narrator. A piece of advice: Surrender to Donald and let him take you on the journey that can only be offered by a master teller.
Joe never fully healed from his self inflicted wound, but he learned how to make himself better than perhaps he ever could have been. When he was recovering initially, he didn’t want to talk about what had happened to him and he stubbornly refused because, “telling the story couldn’t change what happened.” But he learned a simple lesson from his mother that he passed on to his son and that is now being passed on to the reader: “Joe,” she said, “you’re not telling the story to change what happened, you’re telling the story to change you.”
Davis will visit Malaprop’s on Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. to tell stories and sign copies of his new book, Cripple Joe: Stories From My Daddy.