In a previous life, I designed and built custom homes in the mountains of Western Maryland—Garrett County to be precise. That was what I did after fighting in Vietnam and before doing housing research, analyzing building codes, and writing novels. As a builder, I employed and worked with many Appalachian men, and learned to love and respect them although I myself was a “city boy.” One of the men I was acquainted with some thirty years ago was Roger Alan Skipper, a young carpenter who later managed a building supply store. What a surprise to find that later in his life he became a luthier—a builder of string instruments (www.skipperstrings.com/) —went to college, earned an MFA, and started writing novels. And what excellent works they are.
All three of his books are character studies of those Appalachian people I knew and loved—stories about how they rise above the forces trying to pull them down. His first, Tear Down The Mountain, is about Sid Lore and Janet Hollar who are fighting for survival, wondering whether to endure the hardships of mountain life or to try to make a new life down off the mountain. The second, The Baptism of Billy Bean, is a mystery about Lane Hollar, a Vietnam veteran who at great personal risk feels compelled to investigate a drug-related murder. This book was recently translated into French and is being sold in France. Skipper’s third novel, Bone Dogs, is about Tuesday Price, a man battling alcoholism, who is haunted by the idea that he killed his best friend while he was drunk, and his love for Linda, who with tough love refuses to live with him when he is drinking. It’s really about the power of love.
All of the books are at times humorous, gripping, and moving. Skipper is a poet with a vivid imagination, keen eye, and powerful descriptive ability. It is evident that he has always lived close to nature. He knows the woods—the animals, trees, and plants (e.g., ginseng and sarvis)—and knows the brutality and beauty of nature. He knows building, too: carpentry, masonry, etc. His description of laying block and masons shouting to the laborer, Sid Lore, for more mud (mortar) and block made me laugh. I’d been there before. But this scene also left a strong young man—a high school dropout—crippled for life with a “bad back” and was a defining moment in Tear Down the Mountain.
Skipper has a deep understanding of people—their weaknesses and strengths. He knows in his gut the heroic and inspirational self-sufficiency of Appalachian people who live on the edge of poverty, endure hardship, bitter cold winters, and the lost dreams of youth, yet are always struggling, always trying to build a better life. The Appalachian idioms and similes and metaphors he uses are a constant surprise and delight and add richness and texture to the works. One humorous one struck me: “I fell asleep before the old worry mill got to grinding.” I’ll remember that in bed at night.
I feel compelled to contrast Skipper’s works with my book Well Considered, which offers a very different picture of Maryland than his Appalachia. Well Considered is about people, black and white, in the eastern part of the state—people battling racism and racist ancestors to protect their children and live together in peace. But today I want to honor Roger Alan Skipper for his contribution to American literature. I am proud to say I know him, and I strongly recommend his books. Together, his books and mine are bookends for Maryland.