Tennessee Alumnus

A Smoky Mountain Queen

A Smoky Mountain Queen

I gave my first reading of my children’s novel, Gentle’s Holler, in Sylva, North Carolina, in the spring of 2005. I noticed a woman in the front row, Dot Connor, in her sixties with a shy smile and eyes bright and alive with curiosity. I wondered why she was there, because it was mostly children gathered. I learned she was the daughter of Mary Jane Queen, a mountain ballad singer, and my book reminded her of her own large family. Dot told me about growing up the oldest of eight children in Caney Fork, North Carolina.

Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by big, sprawling families. When I began dating my husband, Kiffen Lunsford, doing plays together at the lab theater as UT Knoxville students, he told me he grew up one of 13 children. I thought to myself, “If I marry this man I will never run out of stories.” We were married at the Knoxville Courthouse in 1986, and the International Department at UT Knoxville found us teaching jobs in China to begin our married life together. We now have three children aged 18, 16, and 8, and we bring them back to Tennessee every year from our home in California.

After Gentle’s Holler, my publisher asked me to write two more Smoky Mountain novels for children. A professor at Western North Carolina advised me that to really see the way mountain folk live, I needed to visit Dot Connor’s mother, Mary Jane Queen. So on my next trip, Kiffen came with me, and Dot took us to Caney Fork to meet Mary Jane, aged 91. The cabin Mary Jane lived in was more than 100 years old. Before she married, her name was Mary Jane Prince, and she said to us, “I was a Prince who married a Queen.” And she laughed. Mary Jane had a wonderful laugh that rang out in the air. She pointed out the woodstove, the water from the spring that ran right into her kitchen sink. Dot described her favorite chore as a girl, which was reading books by the woodstove and making sure the cornbread didn’t burn.

The following summer, I took our youngest child, Norah, to meet Mary Jane. We spent the day talking and listening to her stories. She took Norah by the hand and showed her all the flowers in the garden and taught her about “pretty-by-nights” and “touch-me-nots.” She sang songs, including, “I Wish I Was a Single Girl Again” and “Billy Boy.” We talked about the film Songcatcher and how she was the inspiration for the mountain woman, Viney Butler. Norah tended to a butterfly with a broken wing that clung to her ear for an hour or so and sought Mary Jane’s advice about every 5 minutes on the fate of the butterfly. Mary Jane laughed and said, “Just let it alone. It’ll be fine.”

This past spring, Dot called to say Mary Jane was dying. She had recently celebrated her 93rd birthday, finished her memoir, released another CD of mountain music with her family, and even lived to see a PBS documentary called The Queen Family.

A month after Mary Jane’s death, I went to North Carolina to do a reading of my second novel, the setting now so much inspired by my visits to Mary Jane’s home. Dot handed me a tiny bag of black seeds. She said, “These are from Mother’s garden, and I wanted Norah to have them.” I looked at the writing and it said pretty-by-nights.

I don’t believe I’ve ever met a happier woman than Mary Jane Queen, whose laughter welcomed everybody into her world. I will always love her for teaching my daughter about Smoky Mountain flowers. We’ll have to decide where to plant the pretty-by-nights in our garden, and when we do I’ll play the Queen Family CD to hear Mary Jane’s voice serenading us with stories, songs, and love.