Local author captures Appalachia heritage in first novel
Lifestyles Editor — Ever since her college days, Zeata Ruff of Canton, always wanted to write a book that portrayed what life was liking growing up in Haywood County in the 1940s and 50s.
Thanks to an unexpected turn of events later in life, Ruff is now the author of her first novel, “End of the Road,” published by YAV Publishing Company of Asheville this June.
At 3 p.m. Saturday, July 20 she will hold her first book signing at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
For nearly 30 years, Ruff worked as a school book keeper and secretary, retiring from Canton Middle School.
Shortly afterward, in 1999, she married her husband, Jim of Waynesville, who gave her the encouragement she needed to pursue her dream.
For a couple years, beginning in 2005, she started writing. A chapter here, a chapter there, jotting down a collection of short stories inspired by her memories of her Appalachian childhood.
Suddenly, Ruff’s health took a turn and for two and a half years, she put the book aside.
After surviving cancer and receiving a liver transplant in August 2010, Ruff felt it was time to get serious about her dreams she had put on hold.
“After I started getting better, I felt like God and some stranger that I will never know gave me a second chance and I needed to do something with it,” Ruff said. “So that’s when I got the book back out.”
“End of the Road” is set in the fictitious western North Carolina town of Hazelgrove in 1949 and is loosely based on the stories that Ruff remembers her family telling about their lives in Haywood County.
“I was very fortunate as a child to be around people who told wonderful stories, especially my grandparents and my dad and I regret that I didn’t tape them,” Ruff said.
The story follows the daily life of the Crawford family, a hardworking, farming family with seven children who value school, church and family. Yet, the quiet mountain town is disrupted, when David Lee Hall, a moonshiner who abuses his wife, begins to hold a grudge with Mr. Crawford who denies him one of his prize-winning puppies. In less than a month, two mysterious murders leave the people of Hazelgrove with a lot of unanswered questions.
Ruff, who was 6 years old in 1949, chose to tell the story through the perspective of 10-year-old Lil’ Jim, who is supposed to be representative of herself.
Only one of the characters, Russel Gibson, is loosely based on someone Ruff grew up knowing. When Ruff was in 6th grade, she remembers being the one always chosen by the teacher to read a book to Gibson, an older, smelly boy who had sat in the back of the same classroom for years. Likewise, in the book, Ruff describes Lil’ Jim as Gibson’s reading tutor, who is caught in a moral dilemma when Gibson gives him one a carving as a token of his appreciation.
Throughout the book, several of the events and Appalachia traditions Ruff described, including the Haywood County ramp convention and the Labor Day celebration in Canton, she recreated from her vivid memories attending these events as a child.
“The Labor Day celebration, especially then, was the event of the year,” Ruff said. “We would have the rides that would come and everybody would be at the [Waynesville Recreation Park]. I remember all the tents along the fence line where you could buy hotdogs and snow cones and cotton candy.”
Yet, for most of the characters and events, Ruff relied on interviews with tobacco farmers, history teachers and other locals to paint a fairly accurate picture of Appalachia life in between World War II and the Korean War.
“I strongly believe that we need to save our heritage,” Ruff said. “Even my children don’t understand who we are, where we came from and what happened.”
Ruff has deep roots in the mountains of North Carolina. Ruff’s paternal grandmother came from an affluent family in Clay County, yet her grandfather, a talented banjo player, was not as well off and was viewed by her grandmother’s family as a “scallywag.”
Once the two fell in love, to keep family peace, the young couple traveled four days in a horse and wagon from Clay to Haywood County to get married on the preacher’s steps.
“I can hear my grandmother telling that story and I think it’s so important to who I am and who my children are,” Ruff said.
Growing up, Ruff lived up the street from her grandparents in Haywood County and remembers meeting her grandfather after he got off work from the mill and carrying his lunch box for him as they walked and talked back to his house.
Ruff said she wants her readers, whether school children learning about mountain values or older folks reflecting on the good old days, to recognize and appreciate how hard working Appalachian people were and how strongly they maintained their religious and family values.
Since the book’s release, Ruff said she feels like it has been well received.
She plans to sell her book at art shows, which she and her husband attend to also sell their personalized, matted art prints. The book can also be purchased at local bookstores in Asheville, Waynesville and Sylva and online through Amazon, Barnes and Nobel and her website, www.GrinsAndGiggles.com.
Already, Ruff is working on her second book for her five grandchildren, The Gumdrop Tree, which she hopes to have published in time for Christmas.