Melanie McGee Bianchi’s debut short story collection, The Ballad of Cherrystoke, focuses on lower Appalachia, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountain range of the North Carolina and Tennessee territories. Through a range of characters and shifting points of view, the collection offers up a poignant critique of the wave of gentrification mountain cities are currently facing, and the financial divide that creates.
As someone who lived in lower Appalachia, I can really appreciate Bianchi’s effort in capturing the culture, such as her nods to contra dancing, a Friday night favorite in “Blight + Cotillion,” the swaths of old-time bands playing Scots-Irish tunes across the entire collection, and the sheer volume of microbreweries. She also describes the ire and joy tourists similarly bring in “Abdiel’s Revenge”: “It was the same view those outdoorsy freaks down in town were paying for all kinds of ways, staying in thousand-dollar-a-week cabins in between camping and kayaking and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway way too slow, on the prowl for meaning.”
The Ballad of Cherrystoke is full of colorful characters, like a disabled maid and her brother who has a dream of freight hopping; a tiny vacation home with a judgmental landlord; a town besieged by Brandons; a man aching to find his childhood beach; contra dancing step-sisters; a voodoo doll made of clay; a gig worker with a passion for names; a jewelry maker and her shared apartment; and a lady that flashes a seminarian. The collection shifts point of view in every story, but most often sticks to first person, frequently keeping the truth of the story — and character’s names — secret until the last few pages.
Two stories that really stood out among the collection are “Blight + Cotillion” and “It’s Called Overwintering.” “Blight + Cotillion” shares the tale of two stepsisters: Maggie, who is 26 and lives with her boyfriend, Jamie, in a rented cabin, and Corinne, Maggie’s eight-year-old stepsister who stays with them for the summer. The story is so genuine in its love of family and the soft moments characters spend together, but the story’s true shine comes from the images Bianchi paints, such as a swimming hole: “there was a deep pool there, shaped by boulders; it threw truth like a mirror into the shushing small river.”
“It’s Called Overwintering” stars an exhausted teacher’s aide, CG (also known as Cass), and a bus load of fourth grade students lost on their way to a field trip. The children’s perspectives and characterization come across as incredibly authentic from their game, which they call “The Family,” to their hearty inclusion of adults in their games. Of this inclusivity, Bianchi writes: “She patted the sleeve of CG’s sweatshirt in a courteous way — like CG was one of The Family now, but could still be the teacher’s aide, too, if she needed to be.” It’s a sweet moment where a barrier between adult and child is taken down, and the characters are simply allowed to play.
Financial disparities spiderweb throughout the collection, from the way tourists are looked upon in “The Ballad of Cherrystoke” to the rotting old Victorian homes that are the last ones left standing amongst new builds in “Bad Tooth Brandon” and “Killing Frost.” Of this, Bianchi writes in “Nicki the Namer”:
“The space was flush with amenities, all of them scaled for a duchy: rustic ceiling beams reclaimed from various demolished antique churches, a gas grill bigger than a bear and surrounded by another spread of river rock, retractable floor-to-ceiling window screens that worked by remote control, and a rapacious one-hundred-and-eighty degree view of what were supposed to be our mountains. The mountains belonging to all of the people.”
While The Ballad of Cherrystoke showcases the harsh and unfair realities of burgeoning gentrification — the fast downhill push of a community to a rich person’s third vacation home — it does have its own insensitivities, fatphobia being the most glaring. There are only three plus-size characters mentioned in the collection who all evoke pity and, in some cases, act as antagonists — yet in all accounts, these characters are portrayed as unhygienic failures.
Some are truthfully predatory, yet their fatness plays an unnecessary central role in their negative characterizations. This is especially the case in “Confederate Jasmine” where there’s a description of Chicken Don: “But how would a person even find the ball sac in the vast crotch tent of those filthy Carhartt overalls? His enormous stomach was stuffed down in there, too. Probably the entire Satanic mess had begun to fuse together.”
Beyond this, Bianchi’s characters are people, they are secretive, wounded, conflicting — they are meandering, instinctual, and real. This makes for an interesting read, especially for anyone who lives in lower Appalachia or wants to learn more about it.
The Ballad of Cherrystoke
By Melanie McGee Bianchi
Published June 24, 2022