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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

Tribal Knot
Author's Note: The following excerpt from the end of Chapter 1 is shaped from letters exchanged for more than fifty years between my great-grandmother, Hattie Mounts (1861-1948), and her two daughters, Sylvia and Bessie. Hattie and Great-grandfather Robert also had three sons—Dale, Ivan, and "Babe," who are mentioned in these letters. Robert Mounts was a tenant farmer, trapper, and sometime carpenter. Hattie was a midwife who supplemented the family's meager income by raising turkeys on the family's three-acre homestead outside Lafayette, Indiana.

"…the good things are not for me…" (a mother and her daughters)

I am rocking the baby to sleep with my foot and singing a little so if you get a few snitches of the song don’t mind…

           Sometimes the intimate, present-tense quality of the writing catches me off guard, prompting homesickness for a life I never lived. Baby is lying here doing something I’ll bet you can’t do, Putting his big toe in his mouth. Ha! The women write while the cake is cooling, the lye for soap is boiling, the irons heating, the clothes soaking, the yeast about to spill over its bowl. The smear of molasses on Sylvia’s elbow gums up the envelope, and Hattie scribbles while keeping a lookout for the freshly caged pig—Well hear a racket now I expect hes getting out.
In person and on the page, all three--Bessie, Sylvia, and Hattie--were skilled storytellers, but the liveliest descriptions were scratched from Hattie’s pencil. In August, when it is too hot to live anyway, my great-grandmother reports that she has melted and run all over myself  and must fan myself to sleep. In winter, she must hump around and shiver to get warm. Though her children often told their friends you can never tell with Mother or she may be trying to run a bluff, in her letters she appears to hide nothing.  Reading Hattie’s letters is like opening a window directly into her mind. Some letters begin breathlessly, in medias res, as if she’s continuing a conversation with herself:

… And you ought to have seen the show last night about 1 o’clock Dale came running downstairs, something after the chickens, Turkeys flying Rooster cackling he grabbed the shotgun and I the lamp, him in shirttail & slipper and I just my nightgown and slippers it was a beautiful night to be out in such thin apparel when we got down there and peered in the shed here came two coons skulking out from under the wood house, so I captured them both and marched them back to their den and held the lamp for Dale to wire them in we came back thawed out and went to bed again.

           Hattie was never a religious person; her letters serve as confession booth, wailing wall and mourning bench, rosary beads she fingers one by one, stringing each item to the next in a chain of mostly bad news that often begins with her first few sentences:

Brands daughter came home for Christmas & went back, then on Thursday they got a telegram she was dead, wasn’t that terrible to them. I moast dread the holidays anymore it brings so much sadness… The cement wall fell down over at Llecklitners and killed two sows and several pigs, some more of his good luck… I feel rather blue this morning for out of 45 nice little chicks I have 4 left …weasels, hawks and everything else… but I suppose one ought to be glad it is no worse. Packards had a baby girl and it died… Mr. Shalley is dead, so is Mr. Horlacher… and on Sunday too.

           So it continues, the spilling out of troubles in one continuous stream until, gasping, Hattie must take a breath, rest a moment, and grab one more shallow breath before commencing, with much effort, the uphill climb of pulling herself out of the darkness:

… But it seems the good things are not for me … I am moast too tired and out in heart to write… the hens are still on a strike too. But what is the use to complain? Tell the news! Lilly is getting better. Ava has a new boy. The teachers sister & Walter Carr are to be married tonight. Jacksons will soon… Dale dug out a skunk den last Sat. afternoon got 6 skunk and Pa got one in a trap you ought to have been here Sunday things quite highly perfumed around here. 

           It is impossible not to admire Hattie’s determination to talk herself out of herself--her efforts are so transparent, such poignant reminders of the courage and tenacity of ordinary lives. But it is no use to cry although I felt very much like it this morning when I went and saw my nice Turkey that I had fed at dark lying stiff but then there are others are having worse luck so just try again.

           Years pass, decades, their words as immediate as on the day they were written. Here, huddling in the corner is a shivering Bessie with her tiny, stocking feet stretched toward the stove. The frozen chicks are thawing beside her, and she is writing while I warm. For even the workhorse Bessie must stop somewhere to write, so of course I would stop at the churn. And the aging, exhausted Hattie must put her news to bed, Well I will quit and maybe there will be some more to tell in the morning, before picking it up, mid-sentence, with the rooster’s crow, and Good Morning I feel better don’t you for the sun is shining even if the whole valley is a skating rink. Jolly is singing as loud as he can and the boys are skating I think they will get their fill. I will have to hurry for my scrub water is boiling and the yeast is ready to run over.

Author's note: My great-uncle Ivan Mounts was not yet twenty when he left his family home in Indiana to join the West Virginia State Police as a mounted trooper. He'd already served in World War I, having lied about his age to enlist at age sixteen. His letters home to his brother and sister (excerpted from Chapter 12) provide a window into the post-war anti-immigration and prohibition policies that would contribute to the rise of the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1920s.

Ivan, mounted trooper, the dark before the storm

Shumate Hotel
Williamson, W. Virginia
March 6, 1921

Mr. Dale Mounts
Route “E”
Lafayette, Indiana

Dear Brother:
            …Hows everything along the Wildcat Creek? They sure do raise Hell along this river. The Tug River. Its supposed to be about the worst place in West Virginia. They always say the Tug never tells any lies. They mean by that, that theres so many people killed along here and I guess they throw them in the river but it never gives them up. Ha. A pretty cheerful place to be isn’t it.
            They’re having this trial here now and have 19 men indicted for killing 10 men up at Matwan. Don't know how they’re going to come out.
            Most of the mines are out on a strike now and a fellow isn’t safe hardly any place especilly an officer of the law. I had a battle the other day with some moonshiners Ha. Thought I was a goner for about half an hour. I sure burnt up some powder. I guess I got one of them didn’t stay to see.
            I wish you wouldn’t tell any body about this especilly mother. I’m in the State police have been for quite awhile and these people up here like us like poisen. Ha. Ha. But just don’t tell anyone about this. Say would like to know what you would take for that 38 pistol, Hostler and belt that I sold you….I’ve got a brand new 32 automatic that I’ll trade to you if you want it because it isn’t big enough for me to use up here….If you decide to trade or sell wish you would send that blackjack along too. If you do send it you’ll have to box that stuff up good and expres it….Am staying here at the Shumate Hotel. Theres about twenty of us here. Have headquarters in the courthouse. Will probably be sent back to Glen Alum or some other mining town when this trial is over.
            Well good-night tell everybody I said Hello.


January 22, 1922
Mrs. Sylvia Sanders
Oxford, Indiana
My Dear Sis.
Everything here rotten as ever. This is sure a Hell of a Country. Mud and rain guess that’s all they seem to have here and trouble. Couldn’t hardly get the horse through. I’m on duty 24 hours a day…. No my horse isn’t a thoroughbred but never the less he’s a plumb Damn Good one, a black with a white spot in his forehead. You bet they make the stuff at those stills. I think we’ll have a hell of a time this spring again with these Damn Rednecks. From what I can hear I guess they’ll shoot hell out of things. I don’t care. I’ve got two rifles and plenty of ammunition and guess I can do my part.
Love, Ivan.

July 30, 1922
…Yea, boy that’s the way I feel too enjoy yourself while you can. Damned if I can though …. Gosh, yes everything is in a hell of a fix. Don’t believe it will last so awfully much longer though, hardly see how it can….


           As it turned out, the hell of a fix in West Virginia would last nearly a decade, exploding every few months in various counties. Not that it hadn’t already blown several times: Bloody Mingo, the Matewan Massacre, violent skirmishes between strikers and non-union miners, between bootleggers and vigilante “volunteers” aiding State Police troopers like Ivan. West Virginia had long been infamous for civil unrest and feudal warfare, but 1921, the year Ivan joined the newly formed State Police, saw some of the most extreme altercations in the state’s history. Ivan, like dozens of other young men eager to find work in the post-war economic crisis, reported to duty wearing his World War I uniform. Some of the recruits would not survive the four-month probationary period. Others would be dismissed for behavior unbecoming an officer, charged with offenses such as wanton destruction of property, arson, failure to retain neutrality during third-party altercations, and indiscriminate discharge of firearms. But Ivan Otto Mounts would retain his post, having been judged “of sound constitution” and “good moral character” and, most important to the demands of his job as a mounted trooper, an expert horseman.

           Apparently no one checked Ivan’s age qualification. When he wrote to his brother Dale in the spring of 1921, Ivan was not yet twenty, five years shy of the minimum age for a state policeman. But to his mind he was a man, fully grown, tested, and ready for action under the powers granted him under the Creative Act of 1919. As a member of the State Police, he could carry a firearm without a license. Arrest and detain persons. Assist local authorities in apprehending suspects. Execute summonses. Process criminals at court direction. Patrol forests. And aid his superiors in securing “the nationalization and Americanization of all foreign-born inhabitants.” President Wilson had recently signed into law the Emergency Quota Act, a highly restrictive immigration policy that congressmen and their constituents had been pushing, in various forms, for months. Still reeling from the surge of patriotism following World War I, many Americans were outraged with the influx of immigrants they believed were responsible for falling farm prices and job shortages. Not to mention the radical “Red Menace” they imagined was waiting in the wings to undermine everything American stood for. The KKK had reignited its flame in 1915, and Klan publications like the Fiery Cross now blamed the nation’s decline on Jewish businessmen whose “foreign interests” threatened the U. S. economy and whose seduction of young Protestant women threatened the purity of the white race. These publications also denounced Catholics, who, so Klan sympathizers believed, vowed allegiance to a foreign power (the pope) and were trying to infiltrate the public schools. Soon, newspapers reported the first accounts of violence and lawlessness by re-emergent Klansmen.

The Tribal Knot
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