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Reviewed by:
  • Beech Mountain Man: The Memoirs of Ronda Lee Hicks
  • Kathleen Grover
Beech Mountain Man: The Memoirs of Ronda Lee Hicks. By Thomas Burton, with a foreword by John Shelton Reed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. Pp. xxii, 133.)

Thomas Burton in Beech Mountain Man: The Memoirs of Ronda Lee Hicks has collected monologues through which Hicks reveals himself and his life, mostly on Beech Mountain in western North Carolina. The events Hicks recounts occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century and the first few years of the twenty-first, but they reflect a lawlessness and individualistic code of values that seem more characteristic of a century earlier. Burton, Professor Emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, taped, transcribed, and edited numerous sessions with Hicks that spanned a year; he received help from members of Hicks’s family, who also talked with Hicks to get stories started and corroborated many of them. Burton has organized the material into seven chapters, among them Army, Prison, Men and Women, Wrong Place at the Wrong Time, and Reflections.

Burton restricts his own words to his introduction and to brief expository passages introducing chapters and providing transitions between anecdotes. Some of these contain editorial comments about Hicks’s story-telling style or the nature of the upcoming episode, but Burton allows Hicks’s own [End Page 104] narratives to reveal his character, actions, and values. Careful transcription of Hicks’s dialect may at first make for difficult reading, but it creates a credible tone for the character and a sense of the setting for his stories.

Burton writes in his introduction, quoting a traditional song, that Hicks “is a man you don’t meet every day” (xxii). In the book’s foreword, John Shelton Reed (William Rand Kenan Jr., Professor Emeritus of Sociology, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) comments, “After only a few pages of this disturbing but gripping book, I was . . . relieved that the acquaintance was only secondhand” (xi). Reed adds that “Hicks is a classic example of a well-known type, the Bad Man” (xiii). Reed further points out that, although Bad Men are not unique to Appalachia, Hicks embodies the grotesque extremes to which a mountaineer may carry “otherwise admirable virtues,” such as traditions of honor and individuality (xiv).

Hicks is a sociological and psychological phenomenon, but he is also a real-life counterpart to fictional creations of authors like Cormac McCarthy. As he retells his adventures, he reveals a world in which he gets satisfaction from besting others through trickery and violence, not from success in work or relationships. He voices a code of monogamy, saying, “I would never date over one woman at a time. If I’s datin’ one woman, I wouldn’t go out lookin’ for another-un. Even when I was married, I didn’t go out lookin’—but my wives did” (69). Yet, he seems to get much pleasure from describing his numerous exploits with women. He sometimes reveals surprising complexity: killing a woman who tried to invade a military area he was guarding in the Army puts him into a hospital for a month. Burton’s introduction and exposition reveal many people in Hicks’s world who deal with both Burton and Hicks generously, and who work and relate to others effectively in a community of cooperation and laws. But most of the people Hicks describes are as villainous as he, justifying his treatment of them.

In giving Ronda Lee Hicks a means to share his stories, Burton has created a powerful work that lets readers see into his character and perhaps understand how he views his world and his place in it. That world and Hicks will fade, but Burton has added him to the cast of Bad Men memorialized throughout the ages in both fact and fiction. [End Page 105]

Kathleen Grover
East Tennessee State University


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