Versions of this review
appeared in the Roanoke Times
Wings to Fly: An Appalachian Family in the Civil War
Reviewed by Ibby Greer
The title of this beautifully written, historically rich prequel to Hopkins’ Spirits in the Field, that takes us deeper into the lives of the Hopkins families of Pike County in Eastern Kentucky in the 19th century and the effects of the Civil War on them and their region, comes from a version of the old English tune, "The Water is Wide."
It is an apt title, because "crossing over," from the past to the future, from one stage of life to the next, from grief to survival, from one political position to another because of change and war, is at the core of this story.
Hopkins successfully blends first-person narration, of his own research that corroborates tales told him by his grandmother Rissie, and his own musings and analysis, with gripping third-person storytelling, often using italics and flashbacks as a way to delve more deeply into a certain time period, life of one of the characters, and his or their memories. With a passion and sacred duty to tell the stories, he weaves their fates together with suspense and compassion. Family relationships reveal a sequence of love stories, with the author’s great-great-great grandfather Elisha Hopkins and his four wives at the center, like a massive tree whose branches are the generations of people whose stories unfold like leaves. And like the leaves of Indian Summer and Redbud Winter, they fall, becoming part of the tapestry of the tale. By the end of the book, the location of each person’s burial place is explained, thus fulfilling Hopkins’ goal of making whole what had been torn when the family cemeteries were moved to make way for Route 460 in Pike County, the subject of his first book.
Pike County, specifically Greasy Creek which flows into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy, is treated with the same attention to detail and empathy as are the generations of people. We see how closely tied Virginia and Kentucky have been historically, and how the war drew sons from the same family into both sides, Union and Confederate. The Civil War "destroyed nearly everything they had built, and more importantly, nearly everything they believed." Special attention is given to the units his own ancestors fought in, the [Confederate] Tenth Kentucky Cavalry and the [Union] Thirty-ninth Kentucky Mounted Infantry. Hopkins brings to life the action, calamities, and repercussions of a war fought on the doorstep of families who lost their livelihoods, their men, and their hope. Woven through the family tales is the history of the importance of Saltville (VA) to both sides, the Battle of Saltville, the ridge-top skirmishes, the marauding deserters, the hunger and desperation of the women and children left alone, and the military atrocities of Union General Stephen Gano Burbridge, "still the most hated man in Kentucky."
There are surprises in this book in addition to the gratifying validation of the accuracy of his grandmother’s stories. In the heart of this eloquent recounting of a family saga in wartime, is a soft center: a small pillow. It symbolizes, as a genteel gift created in a calm and prosperous time with hope of an abundant future, the whole era and its telling. The story of the pillow links a former Vice President of the United States to Elisha Hopkins’ cabin and daughter on the eve of war as the powerful Confederate leader, John Cabell Breckinridge, came to a mountaintop for advice and strength to proceed....and left with both and with a pillow lovingly-made by a girl who adored him. It is a snippet of an anecdote Bruce learned as a young boy from Rissie, who heard it from Belle (Dorcas).
Another stunning feature of the book is how the little map of the river and creek is used: at the beginning, there is just a line drawing that looks like a tree branch with twigs. As the stories progress, this bare branch blooms with an 1825 depiction of place names and location of Cornelius Hopkins’ farm. Still living through much of the book, he was Elisha’s father, born in Virginia during the Revolution, and spoke in a "Colonial Tongue." An 1860’s version of the map shows how their creeks tie into the larger Kentucky and Virginia topography. Another shows the area in relation to southwest Virginia and General Burbridge’s attack and retreat near Saltville. A final map reveals all the family homes, churches, narrow gauge railroad line, railroad under construction, dock and ferry on the Levisa Fork, logging camp, school, Old Prater Cemetery, Old Hopkins Burying Ground, Elisha Hopkins Cemetery, the grave of Zachariah Phillips, in sum, the world of Greasy Creek after the war and of Spirits in the Field. The final map hints at the devastation brought by northern timber companies, the coal industry, deforestation, and the end of pre-war prosperity of a different kind.
Gone were the giant trees that were sacred to the Indians and gave cabins to the settlers, the yellow poplars that nurtured bees and their honey that Elisha had used for the whiskey that was his livelihood. "The stumps…were like huge flat gravestones covering the tombs of giants, but there was no honor to these markers, and the giants themselves were nearly forgotten." With Bright Wings to Fly Bruce Hopkins, an administrator with the school system of Pike County, has carried on the tradition of Dorcas and Rissie of not forgetting the family history. Hopkins demonstrates in both books the most effective combination of scholarship and memoir. The reader is enriched. When you finish Bright Wings, you will want to explore Saltville, Pound Gap, Grundy, Pikeville, and Pike County. You will want to "cross over" into another era on the banks of Greasy Creek. "If that old place could talk, he thought, the stories it could tell." It has.