And I should add Super Man and Thomas Wolfe to that list. If my late friend Charles were still alive, he’d be laughing so hard right now at the fact that I’ve placed him amongst such illustrious company. His laugh was always hardy and infectious, so downright celebratory. I bet those of you who knew him can hear him now, as can I. And you can probably see him too, with his head thrown back, the wide brim of his lightly colored felt hat framing his face, his long braid of hair lying across a shoulder that’s shaking with his laughter.
So who was (how I hate to use the past tense here) Charles Price, and how does he belong on my somewhat odd list? First and foremost, Charles was a novelist and historian from the mountains of Western North Carolina, who worked first as a journalist in the 1960s and later as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., but he returned to his home mountains at age 57, specifically to Burnsville, North Carolina, to settle into what he had always wanted to do, write fiction. And that’s how I first came to know him. He’d published a Revolutionary War novel in 2008 called Nor the Battle to the Strong with Frederic C. Beil, Publisher, my publisher at the time. Deric Beil sent me a copy, and to say I read it with great admiration would be an understatement. It’s a big, sprawling masterpiece of a book. After I read the novel, I got a call from Charles, though he certainly didn’t call to ask me about his book.
He and his wife, Ruth, whom he absolutely adored (as do all who know her), had started The Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville a few years before, along with the help of many others in Burnsville, of course. So Charles, after reading one of my books, invited me to take part in the festival set for mid September. He said I’d find Burnsville to be a quaint little town, and that my wife, Rhonda, and I would be staying at the Nu Wray Inn, built in 1833, that sits on the town’s historic square.
I don’t know if Charles ever stayed at the inn-perhaps he did when he first went house hunting in Burnsville-but, as you might be guessing right about now, all those on my list did once stay overnight at the large, two-story inn. And after Rhonda and I spent our first night there, waking up not as rested as we would have liked, she was convinced that the bed and mattress we slept on had to have been the exact same one that Mark Twain slept on. Who knows, if we had measured the length of the indentation in the mattress, it might have equaled Twain’s height. As for Super Man, well, we don’t think the real Super Man stayed at the inn, but the actor Christopher Reeve did, though we don’t know which bed. And Thomas Wolfe? He stayed overnight in 1929 while serving as a witness in a murder trial. And Elvis? I’ll tell you about his room in a bit, but I’ll say now, the Nu Wray Inn does The King proud.
Charles was right about what a picturesque and appealing town Burnsville is, with its square, it’s shops, it’s 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. There was one thing missing, though, at least during that first visit: taverns. Oh, how heartbreaking to discover Burnsville was dry. But it turned out, my wife was prepared. Rhonda had brought several bottles of wine, and we found ourselves quite popular on those evenings when writers gathered on the front porch of the inn, kicked back in rocking chairs, and told stories-Charles, of course, the chief story-teller among us. He told us how many had pushed for the county to turn wet, but the bootleggers were morally outraged, and acted upon that outrage by stealing-oh, excuse me, I mean borrowing-the county’s maintenance vehicles and heavy equipment, which miraculously turned up again when the issue of going wet was dropped. Later, though, as we found on subsequent visits, the law was changed and spirits were sold legally. Those poor bootleggers.
Rhonda and I made perhaps half a dozen trips to Burnsville, and it always felt a little like we were coming home. Our last visit was in September of 2019. Ruth made sure we were invited, and I was able to take part in a tribute to Charles and his work. It was both a happy and sad occasion. So many in Burnsville loved Charles and deeply mourned his passing, and so many writers respected Charles’s work. A few years earlier, the festival created the Charlie Award, given each year to a writer “who exemplifies fine writing and who works to build community.” I think that word “community” is essential and fitting in the description of an award named for Charles. It’s why I can’t write about Charles without writing about Burnsville.
Finally, let me get to Charles’s work. Nor the Battle to the Strong is about the Southern campaign of the Revolutionary War, told from the points of view of General Nathanael Greene and a common foot soldier named James Johnson, an ancestor of Charles’s. So readers see the war from both the top down and bottom up. The book is meticulously researched, and there are beautifully and expertly done line drawings in the novel of period weaponry and maps, done by Charles, of course. Yes, he was both a writer and an artist.
His first book was the Civil War novel, Hiwassee, and it looks at the war as it was fought in Appalachia, which has never been widely written about. Charles drew from two sides of his family for the characters, and he continued to write about his forebears in the next three novels: Freedom’s Alter, The Cock’s Spur, and Where the Water-Dogs Laughed, all of which make up the Hiwassee Quartet and carry the reader through the Civil War, Reconstruction, Post Reconstruction and the turn of the century. Such a fully realized achievement of which any writer would be envious. My favorite is The Cock’s Spur, and if you read it, you’ll meet Charles’s favorite character (I know because he told me), a freed-slave named Hamby.
His last published work was non-fiction, a book called Season of Terror, about two brothers named Espinosa who go on a killing spree in Colorado in 1863. Charles’s is the first book-length work about this dark episode in Western history, and it is a powerful work.
Lastly I must mention what Charles called his Horse Operas, his novels of the Old West. They are classic Westerns and could sit on the shelf next to works by Zane Grey and Louis L’amour, only Charles’s are better written. They’re available as e-books, and my favorites are Vengeance on the Sweetgrass (great title, isn’t it?) and Above the Caprock.
Now for the Elvis room, where Rhonda and I stayed on our last visit to Burnsville. The mattress was a good one, so maybe it was more recent than the 1970s, when Elvis stayed. There are still shots of The King framed on the walls and some of his hit singles (I’m talking vinyl 45 rpm records) also adorn the walls. But the piece de résistance is the lamp, at whose base stands a black leather-clad Elvis, guitar in hand, and when you turn on the light, The King sings “Hound Dog.” It’s a fine rendition. Charles would have gotten the biggest kick out of it.
For more on Charles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_F._Price
Or on the book festival: http://cmlitfest.org/