Inspired by a farmer's pleading letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, When the Parkway Came by Anne and David Whisnant puts a human face on the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the most visited unit in our national park system.
Through the tale of one Appalachian family during the Great Depression, the book shows both the pain families felt at letting go of beloved homesteads and their awe at a modern-day miracle: a road across the mountaintops. When the Parkway Came traces their progression from sadness and resentment to resignation, excitement and finally admiration. Although written for children, it captures these complex struggles with tenderness and restraint, creating a layered, sophisticated portrait that feels true to life.
Today, drivers can sail along ridge tops and travel through clouds along the 469-mile scenic highway, which stretches from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Smokies. But the Whisnants’ account of the people who once lived there takes us on a different kind of journey.
“Everyone can think about their home and how they'd feel if something happened to it,” Anne explains. "I was intrigued by the idea of using this letter to create a sort of historical fiction for children — to weave a story, based on factual events about landowners during the building of the Parkway, which everyone could relate to.”
The Whisnants, who live in Chapel Hill, have been researching, teaching and writing about Appalachian history for years, mostly for an adult audience. Both have taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, and they also do work for the National Park Service.
In the course of their research, they found an article from a Galax, Va., newspaper about construction machinery being brought in by rail to begin building the road. That was news: It was intriguing to see how these new machines carved a view through the sky. In the book, this dynamic is juxtaposed with the upheaval of long-standing farms that were subdivided or sold outright.
The authors skillfully capture the mix of grief, hope and gratitude people experienced as a beautiful national highway forced them to give up their homes but also generated excitement, a sense of progress and jobs for hard-hit farmers.
"The parks out West were set on uninhabited land. These parks — the Shenandoah and the Smokies — were built on land that’s been inhabited for generations. You can't put parks on land like that without impacting people,” David points out. "The parents had one set of emotions, but the children had a completely different set. … They were excited about the machinery and the surveying and the construction."
The story puts the reader inside Papa Jess’ family as they try to hold onto their beloved property, realize they can’t and make one last appeal to President Roosevelt. Their poignant struggle plays out against a backdrop of mountain vistas opening up, new tunnels and bridges being built stone by stone, and Sunday excursions along the new route.
Vintage photos collected by the authors in the course of their research help make the story all the more real. It’s a tale of individuals who ached, strove and endured, one by one, through hardship and triumph.
Tangible and heartwarming, this is the way children should learn history.
When the Parkway Came (ages 7 and up, $19.95 hardcover) is available through bookstores or the authors’ website (http://www.whentheparkwaycame.com).
— Freelance writer Cassandra Frear lives in Hendersonville.