If you know the name Wilma Dykeman, odds are good that it’s due to her acclaimed works of nonfiction.
A Buncombe County native, her 1955 book, The French Broad, established Dykeman as a leading environmental activist, and 1957’s Neither Black nor White — co-written with her husband, James Stokely — added “civil rights activist” to her already impressive resumé.
But it’s Dykeman’s fiction that will be the focus of a new monthly summer discussion series at the West Asheville Library, beginning Thursday, May 25. Led by expert speakers, the talks will examine the novels The Tall Woman (1962), The Far Family (1966) and Return the Innocent Earth (1973) and seek to address topics near and dear to the late author.
Putting in work
Dykeman’s son Jim Stokely and his wife, Anne, founded the Wilma Dykeman Legacy in 2012 as a nonprofit. The previous year, they’d retired and moved from Massachusetts to Weaverville to be close to Anne’s mother, whose health was declining. It was the right decision on a family level, but Jim was nevertheless concerned that the shadow of his mother’s celebrity might prove overwhelming for his wife, despite Dykeman having died in 2006 after returning to Buncombe County for her final years.
“Anne loved Wilma, and Wilma loved her, but what daughter-in-law wants to spend her retirement [hearing] ‘Wilma Dykeman, Wilma Dykeman, Wilma Dykeman’?” Jim recalls. “But we got back, and it was the reverse. [Wilma] was a rock star back in the 1960s and ’70s, but in 2011, [her fans] were in assisted living or the alternative.”
Though the nonprofit has helped return Dykeman’s name to the broader public, its goal is not to honor the author but to sustain and promote environmental and social justice through the written and spoken word.
“She wouldn’t have wanted a bunch of people sitting around a circle, drinking tea and remembering Wilma,” Stokely says of his mother. “She would want her value areas to be sustained and moving.”
Just over a decade later, the Wilma Dykeman Legacy continues to operate on a modest scale. According to Stokely, who serves as the president of the board of directors, the organization averages a total of 100 Friends and $10,000 in annual donations, which allows the group to offer programs throughout the year.
Since 2015, the nonprofit has teamed up with the Thomas Wolfe Memorial to host a reading series, which runs January-April. Each month, a different Wolfe short story is read and discussed by participants. Another annual event, Dykeman’s birthday celebration, also offers a chance for the organization to connect with the community. This year’s happening took place May 20 in partnership with Black Wall Street, featuring performances by artists of color.
Meanwhile, every fall, the focus turns to nonfiction with the four-part “My Story: Great WNC Memoirs” series at the West Asheville Library, spotlighting a different regional autobiography each month from September-December.
“But we’ve always varied what we’ve done in the summer, and sometimes we’ve just not done anything,” Stokely says. “This year, Dan [Clare, the nonprofit’s Written and Spoken Word program chair] suggested, ‘Why don’t we focus on Wilma’s novels? They need to be known.’ And I agree.”
Assembling the team
In pairing Dykeman’s works of fiction with discussion leaders, Stokely sought individuals whose own careers aligned with the subjects of each book.
Local novelist Vicki Lane, author of multiple Appalachian-set mysteries, including And the Crows Took Their Eyes, will kick off the series on May 25 with The Tall Woman. Dykeman’s novel is set before, during and after the Civil War, and was written in part to help counteract negative Appalachian stereotypes perpetuated by the likes of daily cartoons “Snuffy Smith” and “Lil’ Abner.”
Stokely remembers his mother contemplating the story. Initially, she had plans of featuring a male mountaineer as the hero but shortly thereafter, she recast its protagonist as a heroine.
“And it turned into an Appalachian classic,” Stokely continues. “I remember seeing her being interviewed on ‘The Today Show’ for it. It was a big deal, and Lydia McQueen [the book’s protagonist] is one of the great characters in literature.”
Stokely himself will lead the discussion on The Tall Woman’s sequel, The Far Family, on June 22. He has fond memories of the novel’s creation, which took place while he and his brother were attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. By then, their mother’s profession was well known to them, but that wasn’t always the case during their childhood in Newport, Tenn.
“She was Super Mom [when we were young]. She made us scrambled eggs and bacon every morning before my brother and I walked to elementary school,” Stokely says. “We go, she works until 3 [p.m.], we come back, and she’s mom. We didn’t know she was a writer.”
The series concludes on July 27 with John Nolt’s discussion of Return the Innocent Earth. The professor emeritus in philosophy at the University of Tennessee is also a research fellow in the energy and environment program of the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Stokely adds that Nolt and his wife “grow much of their own food in organic gardens, dry their clothes in a line, shun air conditioning, and, with an array of solar panels, produce more electricity than they use.”
Nolt’s background makes him an excellent fit for Dykeman’s final novel, about a young man who works for a large corporation in the Midwest and returns to Tennessee in hopes of resolving an environmental disaster that’s resulted in a death due to toxic Brussels sprouts grown on his family’s farm. Like much of his mother’s work, Stokely considers the subject matter significantly ahead of its time.
“This came out in ’73,” he says. “We’re talking about people dying from agricultural sprays. It’s pretty interesting stuff.”
The book discussions take place in the West Asheville Library’s meeting room, where dual projection screens allow for virtual participation that Stokely promises will be on a level far exceeding the usual live broadcast experience.
“We do hybrid better than I’ve ever seen it done,” he says. “We actually bring the Zoomers into the meeting, so it takes more technology, more setup and more people, but it’s a true meeting.”
Rounding out the legacy
While the focus on Dykeman’s fiction provides a creative inroad to the environmental and social justice at the heart of the author’s writing, it also provides a form of atonement for her son. Stokely recalls a day while home from his freshman year at Yale University in 1968 when his mother gathered the family into their Newport living room to read them the first chapter of what would become Return the Innocent Earth. Once finished, she looked up from the pages and awaited feedback.
“I was like a really cool young man at the time — I knew everything there was to know,” Stokely says. “And I said, ‘This is really bad. It’s almost like child’s literature.’ And she started bawling.”
Though his father and brother agreed that it wasn’t Dykeman’s best work, Stokely says neither used language quite as vitriolic as his. Nevertheless, after a few minutes, the matriarch composed herself, wiped her nose with a tissue, and said, “Well, all right. I’ll throw this out and start again,” and wound up writing what become her favorite creation.
“She was a wonderful optimist — that was one of her greatest qualities. You just couldn’t get her down, not for long. Not for more than five minutes,” Stokely says. “I don’t have many regrets in life, but one regret I have is just being too arrogant as a young man.”
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