I haven’t read all of Howard Frank Mosher’s novels yet, but so far the books I have read all include trout fishing. There isn’t much fishing in Walking to Gatlinburg (Crown Publishing 2010), but it comes at a crucial part of the story in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains amidst the insanity of the Civil War.
I suppose it wasn’t a coincidence that I picked up this particular Mosher tale during a tumultuous year of political polarization and conflicts over our racial history. I knew the story was “about” the Civil War, so it seemed like an appropriate time to see what the deep-thinking Howard Mosher had to say about the era of secession, Robert E. Lee and slavery.
But I had no idea what I was getting myself into. When the Charlottesville events happened while I was on about page 10, suddenly the story surged in relevance.
In 1864, at the age of 17, Morgan Kinneson sets off to find his missing brother, Pilgrim, a pacifist surgeon who volunteered to go to the front lines to heal the wounded. The Kinneson clan from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont appears in many of Mosher’s stories over many generations.
In this one, Morgan’s father, a Quaker, runs the northernmost station on the Underground Railroad. Morgan’s epic journey begins when a runaway slave he is escorting to Canada is mysteriously murdered and he finds himself being pursued by the killers, a band of escaped prisoners all of whom are anti-abolitionist psychopaths.
The ill-fated slave, Jesse Moses, had slipped Morgan a stone that depicts a map of the stations along the Underground Railroad. The killers want the stone so they can shut down the escape route and they're willing to kill Morgan to get it. So, Morgan heads south toward Gettysburg, following the markings on the stone, to find his brother while being hunted by the bad guys.
You can’t take Walking to Gatlinburg fully at face value. This is a wild allegorical tale that moves at dizzying clip from Vermont to Tennessee, despite the title’s misleading hint at a slow pace. There are many incredible coincidences (a la Forrest Gump) and unlikely situations, but that is by design. The killers each represent a different face of evil that taints our human society. Other characters represent various dimensions of the human psyche, bad and good, including the many brave folks who helped escaped slaves flee to Canada.
Morgan’s journey south is full of page-turning drama, humor and pathos, love scenes (yes, really), grotesque violence (plenty), and many out-sized and unforgettable characters. It is part Odyssey, part Gulliver’s Travels, part Huckleberry Finn, part Lonesome Dove, part Cold Mountain, part The Road, part Mad Max… well, part lots of stuff. But it is all Mosher.
With each chapter, I kept thinking it was like watching the train wreck that is the Trump Administration, where you can’t look away for a moment or you’ll miss something more bizarre than what just happened. Some of Mosher’s characters and episodes eerily reflect current events.
In his other novels, including Stranger in the Kingdom and God’s Kingdom, Mosher has much to say about “trouble in the family,” meaning the many woes of the entire human family. His novels contain a high thread count of social commentary on everything from discrimination to religious intolerance to xenophobia to infidelity. This one is all that and then some.
Walking To Gatlinburg is, among other things, a journey across American history in which the hero travels a literal cross section of our nation during its terrible rending over slavery. Mosher peeks into kitchens and cabins, wagons and train cars to expose the horrors of human cruelty and dark depths of hate and hypocrisy. But in doing so, he also makes the goodness in our world shine brightly, kindling a small flame to fight off the darkness and the chill of the night.
We pull for Morgan and his allies, just as we look for signs of hope, kindness and love in our own crazy world.
I’ll be thinking about this book for a long time. And maybe one day I will find a quiet trout stream in the Smokies on a peaceful day.