Authors & Illustrators
Angie Smibert is the author of the Memento Nora series, which Booklist called "a gift for both reluctant and regular readers," as well as numerous nonfiction books for children, and many short stories for both adults and teens. She grew up in Blacksburg, Virginia, where her mother's family once worked in the long-closed coal mines along the New River, and currently lives in Roanoke, Virginia. Visit angiesmibert.com.
A Conversation with Angie Smibert
Q: Is Big Vein based on a real place?
A: Yes, the community of Big Vein is loosely based on McCoy, Virginia. It’s a tiny place where my mother grew up and where her parents (and several previous generations) lived. McCoy is just outside of Blacksburg along the New River. From the late nineteenth century until the 1950s, the main occupation in McCoy and in several surrounding communities was coal mining. My grandfather and his brothers all worked in the mines at one time or another. My great grandfather ran the company store, and later my grandfather ran the store, too.
Q: Why did you call the mine and coal camp Big Vein?
A: Actually, Big Vein was one of the two mines that Superior Anthracite operated in McCoy during the 1940s. The other was called Great Valley. I wanted to simplify Bone’s surroundings a bit, so I chose the most evocative sounding mine—and called the coal camp Big Vein, too.
By the way, the real village of McCoy existed long before the coal mines. Therefore, the land wasn’t owned by the coal company—as it was in my book and in many other areas of Southwest Virginia and West Virginia. That’s another reason I changed the name.
Q: How did you come up with the first names of many of your characters, like Ruby, Pearl, and Ash?
A: The Little Jewels—Ruby, Pearl, Opal—have real names from my grandmother’s generation. In the early twentieth century, many parents named their little girls after jewels and flowers. My grandmothers’ names were Hazel and Lilly. And I actually have a great Aunt Ruby—who is still alive and kicking. My grandfather’s sisters were Iris and Violet. Their generation also included names like Jewell, Garnett, Opal, and Pearl. (Of course, there were plenty of Elizabeths, Susies, Ruths, and so forth!) For the Little Jewels, I loved the idea of miners and their wives naming their girls after precious stones that were, for the most part, dug from the earth.
For the Reed family, though, I wanted to take the naming scheme in another direction. As a family tradition, they are all named after plants, trees mostly: Acacia (Mamaw), Amarantha (Mattie), Willow, Hawthorne (Junior and Senior), Bayard, Ash, and Laurel (Bone). This tradition actually goes back many generations. I even drew up a family tree that includes people named Daisy, Fern, Ivy, Poplar, Linden, Zinnia, Birch, and Rowan, among others. I do love a good name!
Bone, of course, is caught in the middle of these two, between the precious stones of the coal camp and the trees of Reed mountain. Her given name is Laurel, an evergreen tree as well as a flower (mountain laurel). But folks call her Bone—that’s just regular old nonprecious rock that doesn’t contain coal. How wrong they are!
Q: Where did the idea for the book come from? How did you come up with the character of Bone?
A: The first scene of the book came to me when I was living in Florida. I lived near the beach in Cape Canaveral. One day, I was swimming in the ocean—actually more like lazily floating on my back, watching the surfers and cruise ships—and I had this flashback. I remembered swimming and floating in the New River as a kid. We used to go to this spot down below the falls in McCoy to picnic and swim. (The falls are where I’d later go tubing as a teenager and college student!) I could remember floating in the cool, muddy brown water under a blue sky, while trains rattled along either side of the river. My best friend used to come with us until she decided the river was too brown and our games were too silly. She’d outgrown it (and me) and wanted to wear dresses and talk about boys. I was a stubborn tomboy, though—and still am. Many years later, floating in the ocean, I remembered that feeling of not wanting summer to end, not wanting to grow up, yet not wanting others to leave me behind. Bone was born out of that feeling!
Q: Why set the book in 1942?
This was a really interesting time, especially for women and girls. During the war, millions of women went to work outside the home for the first time—and they liked it. They liked the independence. After the men came home, many women wanted to keep working.
Also, 1942 was a time of great change on the home front. The U.S. had just entered the war at the end of 1941. By the fall of 1942, people were beginning to feel the effects of combat. Young men were being drafted (or had already joined up). Some of them had already died. Shortages and rationing were beginning to affect people at home. So it was the perfect time to place a character who doesn’t want things to change!
Q: Are you a lot like Bone?
A: In some ways! As I said, I was a tomboy. As a kid, I’d rather play cops-and-robbers or kickball with the boys. And I love stories. However, Bone is much more outgoing and verbal, and braver than I am.
Q: Where do the Gifts come from?
A: Mostly my imagination! Some people do claim to have psychic powers, such as psychometry (touching objects), medical intuition, or healing. I don’t necessarily believe in that kind of power in real life, but I do think we all have something special—a talent or an ability—inside of us. Part of growing up is figuring out how to embrace and use that talent. That’s what Bone’s doing, only her talent is pretty special and a bit scary.
Q: Food is a big part of the novel. Why?
A: Food is a big part of any culture, but particularly so in the Appalachian region. (Plus, I love good food!) I grew up with only a little taste of that culture. My grandmother would make country ham, biscuits, beans, cornbread, and sweet tea for Sunday dinners or special occasions. So, for me, the food evokes the past as well as the region.
Ironically, now Appalachian cuisine is catching on and becoming “hip” as part of the farm-to-table movement—at least in the Mountain South. Don’t get me wrong. I love farm-to-table food. However, this cuisine started out as the food of the poor people who settled the area. They learned—often from the Cherokee and other native peoples—how to grow native plants (like corn), for instance. And in this part of the south, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II, people ate what they could grow, buy, or barter for locally. So the great food was born out of making do with what you had and making it tasty.
Q: What’s your favorite Appalachian folktale?
A: That’s hard to narrow down! For this book, I drew heavily from two favorites: “Soldier Jack” and “Ashpet.” But I’d have to say “Soldier Jack” is my favorite. It was probably the first one I read or saw performed—outside of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In “Soldier Jack,” Jack comes home from war with nothing but some bread. He’s walking toward his hometown when he meets an old man on the road. (In some versions, it’s an old woman, I think.) The old man begs for a bit to eat, and Jack gives him what he has left. For that kindness, the old man gives Jack a gift: a magic sack. If he says the right words, the old man tells Jack, he can catch anything in the sack. Jack makes his home, putting the sack to good use. He even catches Death in it.
I like this story because Jack is rewarded for his kindness—as is Ashpet in her own tale—and given special powers to make himself a good life. But there’s a limit. You can’t keep Death in a bag for too long.
Q: Did the Virginia Writers’ Project really come to Big Vein, or at least to the village you based it on?
A: The Virginia Writers’ Project workers didn’t come to the McCoy area, at least that I’m aware of. They did visit communities to the west and south of the New River Valley. For instance, the book Virginia Folk Legends (which is a compilation of some Virginia Writers’ Project stories) lists numerous tales collected in Wise County, as well as tales from Smyth, Floyd, Amherst, Tazewell, and Botetourt counties.
Q: What advice would you give Bone at the end of the book?
A: Two things. First, have patience. I know that’s tall advice for a 12-year-old. Mattie obviously is not an easy nut to crack. She might not be ready to forgive herself just yet. Secondly, have faith in yourself and trust in your own inner voice. As Mamaw might say, you need to “foller your own lights.”