Madden-Lunsford’s new book pays homage to her ‘mountain mother’

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kerry insideKerry Madden-Lunsford, associate professor in the Department of English and director of the creative writing programEnglish Professor Kerry Madden-Lunsford, MFA, first met Ernestine Upchurch in 2005 at Joey’s Pancake House in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, a small Appalachian town sandwiched between other small Appalachian towns with names like Balsam and Cataloochee. Upchurch wanted to talk about Madden-Lunsford’s children’s novel, “Gentle’s Holler,” which is based in Maggie Valley. Madden-Lunsford had received an email from Upchurch months prior. The email read something like this:

“I am Ernestine, and I understand you’ve written a story for children about our mountains. One of my missions is to facilitate literary affairs,” Madden-Lunsford remembers. “I want to welcome you to Maggie Valley.”

That first contact bloomed into a beautiful connection, more familial than friendly, Madden-Lunsford says. She calls Upchurch her “mountain mother,” and stayed often in Upchurch’s rural cabin, settled in Maggie Valley’s Johnson Gap, writing pieces of “Louisiana’s Song” and “Jessie’s Mountain,” part of the Smoky Mountain trilogy alongside “Gentle’s Holler.”

As the two grew closer, Madden-Lunsford, who is an associate professor in the Department of English and director of the creative writing program, learned Upchurch’s stories: how she once square-danced with the Soco Gap Square Dancers, who once performed in the White House for the Queen of England and the Roosevelts. How she played Queen Nefertiti in a theater performance while studying at Berea College. How she raised two fine kids with her late husband, Cecil.

EMW book cover inside“Ernestine’s Milky Way” will be released March 5 from Penguin Random House.

But one story stuck out to Madden-Lunsford the most, about what Upchurch calls her “first actual responsibility” — when Upchurch’s mother, who sold milk from the family’s cow, asked a then 5-year-old Upchurch to run a half-gallon jar down the mountain to a neighbor named Mattie. Upchurch wrote about her memories for Madden-Lunsford, who provided her an “I remember” writing spark she often uses in classes to get Upchurch thinking about her first job.

“I thought to myself, ‘How can I honor this mountain woman?’ And I thought, this little brave girl.””

“I remember walking through the pasture, seeing the dirty and rocky path beneath my feet and fearing that the cold, wet jar would fall from my grasp and be broken, spilled and wasted,” Upchurch wrote. “I remember a feeling of success in arriving safely after crawling through the wire fence twice to get to their wooden-frame home. I remember the face of Mattie when I arrived with the milk, and I remember Mama’s look of confidence. She believed in me.”

Madden-Lunsford turned that story into her newest children’s book, “Ernestine’s Milky Way,” which will be released March 5 from Penguin Random House.

The book, written with Ernestine’s blessing, tells the story of a determined 5-year-old girl named Ernestine in the early 1940s, who sets off on a journey to deliver two Mason jars of milk to her neighbors in the holler. When one slips from her arms and rolls down the mountainside into the river, Ernestine despairs. But later, the neighbor’s son shows up with a muddy jar — with a surprise inside. The rolling motion had churned the milk into butter.

See Madden-Lunsford read from her new book and turn milk into butter — just like Ernestine.

“I wanted to write a story about a girl going on a journey,” Madden-Lunsford said.

“Ernestine’s Milky Way” is Madden-Lunsford’s endeavor to honor Upchurch by explaining what it means to be a good neighbor, which she says Upchurch was. Upchurch worked as a social worker, and with two businesswoman friends, Brenda O’Keefe and Shirley Pinto, helped bring city water to Maggie Valley, where reliance on creek water couldn’t sustain the area’s hotel boom in the 1970s. She was a charter member of the Council on Appalachian Women, former president of the Haywood County Friends of the Library and a supporter of the Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre. Although not a Catholic herself, she helped establish the first Catholic church, St. Margaret of Scotland, in Maggie Valley. She was known as “the woman who got things done,” Madden-Lunsford wrote in Upchurch’s obituary.

ernestine and kerry insideUpchurch, left, with Madden-Lunsford and Madden-Lunsford's dog, Olive

“There’s so much about Ernestine that could never fit in the book,” Madden-Lunsford said. Children’s books are typically around 800 words. She wrote more about Upchurch in the book’s author’s note.

“There’s so much about Ernestine that could never fit in the book.”

Upchurch died in August 2017, before Madden-Lunsford had completed “Ernestine’s Milky Way.” The book’s illustrator, Emily Sutton, sent Upchurch preliminary sketches so she could see her story on the page.

Madden-Lunsford says she rewrote the book “a hundred times” — she has a red file folder full of research materials, drafts and handwritten notes from her editor — trying to pay homage to her “mountain mother,” a woman who once, while the two were stuck on North Carolina’s Interstate 40 due to a rockslide, convinced Madden-Lunsford to move the barricades so they could drive west down the eastbound freeway. They were traveling to visit a late friend’s gravesite.

“Ernestine made me brave,” Madden-Lunsford said. “I thought to myself, ‘How can I honor this mountain woman?’ And I thought, this little brave girl.”

Birmingham’s Alabama Booksmith is hosting a book launch party for “Ernestine’s Milky Way” March 4. To read more about Ernestine Upchurch, visit Madden-Lunsford’s blog.