Poem December 21


for Richard Hood

I’m cooking a pizza in the oven.

Every bit of steam’s frolicking.

Snug on my high bed, the sheets listen.

From dawn to dusk the barnyard lights glisten

When I crease my covers whiter than snow,


For I am loving no flakes this Christmas.

With every yellow daisy popping up,

The meadow turning even more golden,

And the full moon, coming up now, blossoms

To let the elephants and flocks go by.


They flop out of sight like exclamations,

Arriving in wonder, McGee’s Crossroads,

To prep and string popcorn in rows of clouds.

There is no snow on Paul’s Hill this Christmas,

Just dollops of dewy lichens on posts.


May sweaters spring red, blue, white, brown, lacey,

Minds lift away from neutrally racy

Swears to mark the weather this morn.

I put suet out for the woodpeckers.

Not a one in sight will leave me undone.


All my button-holes I keep unbuttoned

For breezes to make my lashes whistle,

This merry Christmas day, Cricket snores.

The front door’s purposefully half-open,

My heart singing a sprig in awe of spring.

— Shelby Stephenson

Shelby Stephenson was North Carolina’s poet laureate from 2015-2018.

Wandering Billy

Jewels at The Crown

Do you hear what I hear? A night of live music sure to spellbind


By Billy Eye

Without music, life would be a mistake.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Hey, I love Christmas as much as the next guy — if the next guy happens to be Santa Claus — but there’s a night I’m just as excited about: an evening featuring a powerhouse lineup of local musicians headlined by Laura Jane Vincent, a modern-day troubadour with a voice like champagne and caviar. It’s happening on December 11 at The Crown, located above the Carolina Theatre. The Crown, by the way, has undergone major renovations, including the conversion of the former projection room — now dressing rooms and a green room — plus new bathrooms and a concession stand.

Laura Jane Vincent is a country girl both at heart and literally, as reflected in her down-home, introspective songwriting.

“I grew up in Raeford, North Carolina, about an hour south,” Vincent says. “I now live in a little town called Glendon, right on the border of Moore County and Chatham County.”

Warbling in high cotton with red-clay-’tween-the-toes lyrics, small wonder her compositions are deeply rooted in Southern musical traditions.

“My stepfather [Al Simmons] taught me a lot of everything I know at a young age,” she says. “He’s a great guitar player. Coming up in that national songwriting tradition, he was very heavily influenced by his best friend, Mike Gaffney.”

Gaffney, BTW, has been a mainstay of the Asheville music scene for around four decades.

“Those two guys exposed me to all sorts of wonderful musicians,” Vincent continues. Among them: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Fiona Apple, Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch.

“A lot of female artists,” Vincent says. “That representation was so important to me as a young person. Like, ‘Oh, I could maybe do this myself.’”

Her stepfather also introduced her to open mic nights when she was 15 years old.

“I was a little bit younger than most people,” Vincent remembers of those early days, tagging along behind her musical mentor. “So, I had to kind of — not sneak in or anything — but walk in with authority and act like I belonged there.”

Vincent has been honing her craft at open mic nights in Southern Pines, located near Glendon, and Greensboro, where audiences have witnessed her blossom into a dynamic showstopper at Cup A Joe, Westerwood Tavern and The Green Bean. I first encountered her at the Double Oaks Inn on one of its live music nights, where the finest performers in the area do their thang in a relaxed, living room setting.

Vincent’s transportive, revelatory album, All These Machines, was released in March of 2020, just as everything shut down.

“I’m very, very proud of it,” she admits. “I got to collaborate with my most favorite people.”

The album is imbued with a style harkening back to 1970s singer-songwriters like Janis Ian, Joan Armatrading and Phoebe Snow — but with a Carolina flavor.

While some tunes track solely on Vincent and her guitar, others feature a number of folks she’s performed alongside over the years, well-known locals like Emily Stewart, Pete Pawsey, the ubiquitous Matty Sheets, longtime musical partner Danny Infinger on bass, and her husband, Dave Tippetts, on drums. Another contributor is her friend Brian Kennedy, a Broadway musical conductor and director who tours with Something Rotten! and Wicked. “He happened to be in town,” Vincent says. “I asked, ‘Can you come over right now?’ And he put a crazy organ solo on ‘Shoes,’ one of the songs on the album.”

Vincent is mostly known around the nightclub circuit as a solo artist, her infectious, tangy-twangy crooning winning over a legion of fans as she slugged her way up through the dive bars into widespread acceptance. Last time Eye saw her strumming and singing in her mellifluous tones, she held an audience spellbound at Natty Greene’s, where she was accompanied by bass and drums. “I have a full band now,” Vincent says.

Her ensemble is comprised of Tom Troyer (guitar) and Jared Zehmer (bass), who frequently jams with local rock group Viva la Muerte and a couple of other regional groups.

“Aaron Cummings is a fantastic drummer,” Vincent adds. “He’s going to play on a few songs at The Crown, as will my husband. We’re probably going to have a couple guest spots as well.”

Winston-Salem-based Cactus Black is also on the bill at The Crown that night. I spoke with guitarist and vocalist Mike Tyson, aka Cactus Black, about the band’s rough-hewn, arid desert style. “First and foremost, we’re storytellers rooted in the old country tradition,” Tyson says. “But it’s delivered in more of an indie-rock, garage-rock style, and has kind of a folk influence as well.”

Before coming together as Cactus Black in 2012, Tyson and bandmates Matt Pickard (aka Sunday the Drifter) on drums and Mike Bright (aka Randy Heck) on bass were in a “whiskey rock band” called Tusker. Bright was lead singer.

Cactus Black’s third album, The Marrow of Our Truth, released in August, has quickly become one of my favorites for the sheer exuberance, and inherent intelligence, as well as for being what used to be called a “concept album” — not just anecdotal singles thrown together, but thematic. In this instance: fevered dreams steeped in Old West lore. The opening tune, “All Things Pass, All Things Change,” is a romantically tragic coming-of-age lamentation reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. It’s a splendid party record, superbly paced and deeply enveloping, one that commands (but does not demand) your attention.

“We did a record release show at the Ramkat in Winston back in September,” Tyson says. “There, we played the new record in full. [Sorry I missed that!] This show at the Carolina Crown is going to be a mix of all three records.”

Besides three LPs, the band has a number of singles, one of which is “Live in Greensboro,” a punk-esque jump-and-jive recorded at On Pop of the World Studios and pressed on multicolored vinyl in 2017. Vinyl collectors take note: All of Cactus Black’s releases are beautifully designed and packaged right down to the imaginatively colored discs.

Opening act is local folk rocker Ashley Virginia. Her debut album, And Life Just Goes On Living, plumbs the depths associated with heartbreak and healing.

Vincent admits to being somewhat intimidated.

“I can’t believe I have these two great bands on the same bill as me,” she says. Eye can. And with this amount of talent and superior songwriting on the stage, December 11 should be a night to remember. See you at The Crown, friends.  OH

All of the aforementioned artists can be found on bandcamp.com and other digital platforms where you can listen to their entire albums before you buy.

Billy Eye covered the downtown/East L.A. punk and underground music scene from 1980-83 for Data Boy magazine.


Photograph courtesy of Tom Troyer


A Tree of Delights

Decorating can be for the birds, too


By Susan Campbell

This season, why not create a gift for your feathered friends and consider “decorating” a holiday tree just for them? Although a hearty evergreen would be best, anything from a leafless sapling to a young longleaf pine will work. Better yet, a younger American holly or other berry-laden variety would be a terrific choice!

Consider this a project for the whole family, just like hanging ornaments or setting up lights in the yard. Keep in mind that, especially when using an evergreen, you are providing not one, but two, basic needs that all our wintering birds have: food and shelter.

To “decorate” your tree:

— Drape with traditional strings of popcorn and cranberries or other dried fruits for the bluebirds and the blue jays.

— Hang homemade suet on pine cones for the chickadees and nuthatches.

— Nestle shallow cups with sunflower seed or millet on the thickest branches for the cardinals and titmice.

— Smear peanut butter on the bark to attract woodpeckers and wintering warblers.

Last, but certainly not least, your tree will invariably attract natural food in the form of tiny insects. It will take no time for Carolina wrens or ruby-crowned kinglets to find them between the leaves or needles, or under the bark.

It may be that you create your gift to the birds just after Christmas — when your indoor tree is finished providing joy for the family. This is about the time that natural foods are waning and the birds are foraging in earnest. No doubt, bird species large and small will find your arboreal creation before long. Keep track of which ones you see using the tree. It may be a longer list than you might think.

Of course, other wildlife will love this holiday gift, too. In addition to gray squirrels and perhaps a fox squirrel, southern flying squirrels may glide in at night for a snack. A raccoon or opossum may sniff it out. Even a white-tailed deer or two will probably take a nibble. But then, who doesn’t appreciate a treat during this special season?  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.  She can be contacted at susan@ncaves.com.


Illustration by Harry Blair

The Pleasures of Life Dept.

O Christmas Tree

Poor, rusted Christmas tree


By Ruth Moose

When water is up to your waist, the last thing you think about is Christmas. And certainly not Christmas trees. You rescue what you can at hand. You bless sump pumps and those who make them. Same goes for wet vacuums. You are amazed that sofas can swim, but armchairs cannot. And you cry over books. Thousands of pages, sodden wads of pages, glued together, their backs forever warped and bucked in humps and waves. How heavy they are as you cart them to the curb. How wasted their lives.

Hurricane Florence got all the publicity, but the hurricane after got us. In Albemarle, our usually sunny (and the site of my artist husband’s studio) daylight basement ended up with nearly 3 feet of water. At least it was clear, cold and clean water, but still a frightening sight. Here were my husband’s sketches and paintings, art books, art supplies and frames. His working easels and drawing board, paints and brushes. It’s a sickening feeling to pull open a drawer of paint tubes and water pours out. Not to mention a lifetime collection of art books with glorious color reproductions of paintings he’d used for study and inspiration. In other sections of the basement he also had a woodworking shop furnished with years of accumulated equipment and tools.

Then there was the household part of the basement with the water heater, furnace and 35-year-old food freezer, all standing in water. Plus various assorted items we’d stored over the years. Never had water, four sump pumps going simultaneously, receded so slowly. You can only haul furniture out to dry, watch the skies and wait. Pray. And when the water is gone, you wet vac and wet vac and wet vac. You hear the roar of the motor in your sleep.

Then you begin to dry out sketches and wipe off oil paintings and cry over lost watercolors who went to meet their medium. You open cabinet doors, and drawers and water pours out.

Somewhere in the flood I heard my librarian aunt’s voice when she said, more than once, she never trusted basements. Neither did she like attics. “Basements are too wet,” she said, “and attics are too dry.” At least I thought what we had stored in the attic was dry and better dry any day than wet, wet and wetter.

But, miracle of miracles, after the water went, the air conditioner came back on, the water heater began to purr and the ancient food freezer hummed its heart out. So, I emptied and cleaned it and began all over again. Thirty-five years old, hauled through four complete household moves, the freezer kept going and going and going. Gave one heart and hope.

In all that water and wetness, nobody thought about the Christmas tree until months later. We were too busy mopping and drying out and saving what could be saved. When it came time to do the tree, we remember what had been in some of those sodden boxes in the basement. That artificial tree I’d argued and fought against and finally been persuaded (for ecological reasons) to tolerate. Not accept. All our married life my husband and I had fought the real vs. artificial Christmas tree fight. And for years I’d won. Real was a cedar tree that permeated the whole house with the smell of Christmas. No artificial tree had ever come close to that. For years we’d had the advantage of family land to tromp as a family, choose and cut a tree. We never found the perfect tree. Just ones that could be trimmed or branches spliced to suffice. It didn’t matter, as long as they were real. All Christmas trees when trimmed and lighted are beautiful.

When family lands were no longer available, I had no choice but an artificial tree. Somehow the picture of my husband assembling those branches that still look and feel — to me — like giant green bottle brushes, never matched the one in my memory of tramping through the woods on a winter Sunday, kids and dog ahead, ax and saw in hand, to bring home bundled and tied atop the station wagon, this year’s Christmas tree.

Thankfully, the tree ornaments and decorations were in the attic. The tree itself had been stored in boxes too big to go through the crawl space and had to go to the basement. The basement flooded. So we had dry ornaments and a rusty tree. We dried out the branches, shook the rust out, stuck them back into a shape that still looked like a pyramid of green bottle brushes and said, “Merry Christmas to all and to all a working sump pump.”  OH

Ruth Moose taught creative writing at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill for 15 years and tacked on 10 more at Chatham County Community College.


Illustrated by Meridith Martens

Featured Artist

Rock On

Artist Viktoriya Saltzman’s painted path to freedom



By Maria Johnson

Viktoriya Saltzman touches time-worn river rock with a needle-sharp brush, transferring beads of glistening color.

Forms emerge slowly, dot by tedious dot.

Later, the stones speak with jeweled urgency to the people who pass her table at farmers’ markets and craft fairs.

They lean in and smile at the cobbled path of life and ideas: flowers, animals, mandalas, Nativity scenes, peace signs, chakras, the ancient eye-in-hand Hamsa and others.

“I accept different cultures,” says Viktoriya, a native of Ukraine. “I don’t like mandatory lifestyle. I think each person deserves respect and love. If you’re an artist, you have to understand, you have to accept anything that’s coming to you.”

A few weeks ago, at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market, a woman with three grade-schoolchildren stopped to admire the sugar skulls that paved Viktoriya’s table with some 150 flat stones, ranging in size from buttons to bricks.

Viktoriya doesn’t usually paint sugar skulls — a symbol of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring dead loved ones — but a bag of river rocks she bought at Lowe’s included three triangular stones, so she made them into grinning, crazy-eyed skulls.

The woman bought all three, for $85, for her children’s teachers.

Viktoriya slipped the stones into a small unicorn-covered gift bag — the kind you stuff with children’s party favors — then pressed a fourth stone into the woman’s hand.

A butterfly, for free.

“Some customers have gifting hearts, but they don’t think about themselves,” Viktoriya says after the woman and her children walked away. “I want them to have a gift, too.”

For as long as she can remember, Viktoriya has understood what art can do for the artist and for the consumer of art.

Her father’s family bristled with painters.

Her mother’s family, singers.

In Viktoriya, the musical genes surfaced first. Growing up, she was a gifted accordionist in her hometown of Mariupol near the Sea of Azov.

“My technique was enormous. I played an average of 4 to 5 hours a day. My arpeggio was amazing,” she says.

She was crushed when she was rejected from a music conservatory. Plan B was to attend a teachers’ college in the frigid Ural Mountains in neighboring Russia.

“My pantyhose froze to my legs,” she says. “I had to peel them with alcohol.”

Outside of class, she played at academic gatherings, hauling home leftover beef stroganoff and potatoes to her dorm mates. After college, she sang for a Russian folk dance troupe that toured Europe and the United States.

“Half the band stayed in America, never came back,” she says. “Crazy.”

She followed an American husband to North Carolina in 1999.

She summarizes their brief union: “I left my husband. I took the accordion.”

She moved to Greensboro for jobs. Babysitter. House cleaner. Waitress. Singer. Accordion player. Lingerie saleswoman. Seller of makeup at a department store beauty counter.

“I love selling, but not all for money — for presentation,” says Viktoriya, who wears her curly brown hair in a spray atop her head. “I tell a story. You gonna buy.”

The idea for painting rocks came in 2015, when she was planning her daughter’s 9th birthday party. She needed a fun, cheap activity for the kids. She bought acrylic paints and stones and led a demonstration. The results, Viktoriya says, blew everyone’s minds.

“Parents said, ‘Why you don’t try to do this as a job?’” she remembers.

Two years later, she unpacked a box of rocks at the Gibsonville farmers market. She found other venues. It was an important trickle of income for a single parent.

“When I start painting, I wasn’t, of course, fantastic. People liked it, but I’m picky, and I know when I’m good and when I’m not good,” she says. “Most important, the hours of practice. Dance, art, anything. You have to be super patient.”

Now, she’s confident enough to branch out. She paints wooden jewelry boxes, wooden trays, wooden ornaments for Christmas and Easter. She takes custom orders — a set of rocks for a Jewish woman to put on her son’s grave; a turtle composed of seven rocks — shell, head, legs, tail — for a co-worker (“Best turtle you’ve ever seen.”); an end table painted with African masks. She incorporated the face of her customer and the woman’s boyfriend into the masks. (“He said, ‘I want to scream, it’s so pretty.’”)

Viktoriya has a steady job, in the silver-buying department at Replacements Ltd.

But she keeps painting, at night, at her dining room table.

“Art lets me do anything,” she explains. “It’s my freedom. My freedom of mind. My freedom of time. Freedom of picking colors. When you do art or music, your own stuff, it makes you free. Your soul works different, your mind works different.”

The loop closes, she says, when customers delight in the fruit of her freedom.

“When people go, ‘Oh, my God! I like that!,’ I get that feeling, too.”  OH

Saltzman’s upcoming shows include Dec. 3, The Market at Festival of Lights, LeBauer Park, Greensboro; Dec. 4, Greensboro Farmers Curb Market; Dec. 5, MADE 4 the Holidays Marketplace, Greensboro Farmers Curb Market; Dec. 11, Eno River Farmers Market; Dec. 18, Winston Junction Market, Winston-Salem. Email her at bayanistka@icloud.com.

Contact contributing editor Maria Johnson at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.


Photograph by Lynn Donovan

Home by Design

Fruitcake Weather

It’s here. And so are the memories


By Cynthia Adams

Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” a paean to love, is Capote at his best.

The tale centers on young Buddy, Truman’s alter ego, and his elderly cousin Sook, celebrating the arrival of “fruitcake weather.” Thus, preparations begin for 30 fruitcakes, one earmarked for FDR’s White House. The glowing wood stove and ambrosial smells remind me of those who baked joyfully: my Great-Grandmother Loretta McClellan and my own grandma, Mama Patty.

They were equally enthusiastic about both fruitcake and the Roosevelts. Their fruitcakes — nut-filled and flawless — kick-started my affection for the holiday confection.

Loretta and Pat baked holiday cakes with effortless ease: fresh coconut and chocolate or vanilla pound cakes. 

Our mother, Jonni Louise, did not. She inherited few cake-baking talents from her elders and her infamous fruitcakes became the stuff of family legend. She compensated for disappointing dryness with a liberal dousing of brandy. Marinating until Christmastime, her fruitcakes disintegrated in a pool of liquor. On Christmas Eve, we picked around the alcoholic mush, patting our stomachs and claiming we were too stuffed. Mom, skeptical but unfazed, was nothing if not an improviser.

Occasionally, her improvisations succeeded.

With our father away for work, for instance, she once bought the Christmas tree without him. That night, it looked like a tinseled Tower of Pisa. When crashing to the living room floor for the second time, shattering more ornaments, we heaved it upright. Limbs scratched our arms and ruined orbs crunched beneath our feet. Snatching up a hammer, Mom nailed the stand to the newly waxed and buffed oak floor. We watched in shock and awe.

Mom embraced the expedient. 

When a hem fell out of my holiday dress before the school pageant, she grabbed tape and a stapler.

Yet there was no compromising on one thing: Hallmark (Who, by the way, invented gift wrap). 

Hallmark’s tagline — “When you care enough to send the very best” — was coined in 1944. It so compelled her that, for the rest of her life, whenever she received a card, she searched for their imprimatur before reading it. The unspoken was: Had the sender cared?

Jonni Louise indeed cared, driving to a Monroe Hallmark shop, where she gorged on themed paper goods and the tour de force: centerpieces with honeycomb pleats — trees, snowmen or Santas.

Hallmark’s sentimental ploy was peerless; its sappy commercials could make a grown man cry. Only Folgers’ 1984 Christmas jingle matched Hallmark tear for tear. We wept when the prodigal son, usually a serviceman, snuck into the kitchen to surprise Mom on Christmas morn as — what else? — coffee brewed. The best part of waking up . . .

We smelled it! 

Lifelong, Mom easily spent more on Hallmark swag than on food — though plenty was spent on holiday feasts. (Not to mention liquors required for fruitcakes, bourbon balls and other desserts.)

“A Christmas Memory” offers this O. Henry ending: Having spent their savings on fruitcakes for others, Buddy and Sook spend Christmas flying kites made for one another. A joyful Sook exclaims, “I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” It was, in fact, their last Christmas together.

Two years ago, not long before Jonni Louise departed from this realm — and just before the holidays — we shared Claxton’s store-bought fruitcake and a cup of (Folgers’) coffee.

“It will do,” she declared.

I fear Hallmark’s bottom line plunged that Christmas. 

But, perhaps not, given the many sympathy cards from those who knew Jonni Louise well. They had, indeed, cared enough to send the very best.  OH

Contributing editor Cynthia Adams may or may not prefer her fruitcake soaked in brandy. 

Scuppernong Bookshelf

Holiday Treasures

Some old, some new. All bursting with magic


Compiled by Shannon Purdy Jones

Growing up, one of the things I most looked forward to about the holiday season was rediscovering the Christmas books my mother had packed up with the decorations in the attic. Stored out of sight for most of the year made them fascinating, almost otherworldly. They weren’t like all the other books on the shelf; they were special. Dreamy, snow-dusted illustrations and gentle rhymes worked their magic on me back then, and years on, they haven’t let go. 

Now, with kids of my own, I realize that part of what made those books so special was the memories attached to them: the time my brother and I stained the page of a family heirloom with red frosting (because who can be bothered to wash up while decorating cookies?). Or reading ’Twas the Night Before Christmas before bed every Christmas Eve. (The very same edition I now read to my children.)

We still have some of my most treasured childhood holiday books, and each year my kids add to the collection, creating their own memories of cookies and reindeer and snow. Below, you’ll find my favorite holiday books of 2021 — some brand-new, some re-releases of old favorites. No matter what holidays you celebrate, you can start — or grow — your own we-keep-these-forever stack of threadbare but well-loved books.

The Star Tree by Gisela Colle (Northsouth Books, $17.95) A timeless classic back in print with a fresh, new look. In a little house in a big city, an old man remembers Christmases long ago: when friends and family gathered to tell stories and sing carols, and children made gold paper stars to welcome visitors. Now the city is filled with skyscrapers, bright lights and flashy signs. Who would even notice old-fashioned paper stars hanging in a window? But when the old man decorates a park tree with his basket full of paper stars, the whole community rediscovers the simple power and beauty of the Christmas spirit.

Santa in the City by Tiffany D. Jackson, illustrated by Reggie Brown (Dial Books, $17.99) It’s two weeks before Christmas, and young Deja is worried that Santa might not come to her house. After all, as a city kid, she doesn’t have a chimney for him to shimmy down and none of the parking spots on her block could fit a sleigh, let alone eight reindeer! But with a little help from her family, community and Santa himself, Deja discovers that the Christmas spirit can find its way into any corner of the world. With bold, colorful illustrations that capture the joy of the holidays, this picture book from award-winning author Tiffany D. Jackson and illustrator Reggie Brown is a holiday gift to be treasured for years to come.

The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper, illustrated by Carson Ellis (Candlewick, $17.99) As the sun set on the shortest day of the year, early people would gather to prepare for the long night ahead. They built fires and lit candles. They played music, bringing their own light to the darkness while wondering if the sun would ever rise again. Written for a theatrical production that has become a ritual in itself, Cooper’s poem captures the magic behind the returning of the light, the yearning for traditions that connect us with generations that have gone before — and the hope for peace that we carry into the future: So the shortest day came, and the year died. Richly illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Carson Ellis, this beautiful book evokes the joy, universality and community found in honoring and celebrating the ongoing mystery of life. Welcome, Yule!

The Christmas Owl by Ellen Kalish & Gideon Sterer, illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki (Little Brown, $17.99) When Little Owl’s home is cut down by people saying it will make a beautiful Christmas tree, she’s not sure she wants anything to do with Christmas, whatever that means. But then she is saved by a woman named Ellen, whose house is merrily decorated for the holiday — and filled with birds who need someone to care for them. Surrounded by kindness and helpful new friends, Little Owl begins to wonder if Christmas might not be such a bad thing after all. Co-written by Ellen Kalish, caretaker of the real owl found inside the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, The Christmas Owl is a charming story of friendship, compassion and the true meaning of this special time of year.

Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Levine Querido, $17.99) It’s a holiday season that both Isaac, whose family is Jewish, and Teresa, whose family is Christian, have looked forward to for months! They’ve been counting down the days, playing in the snow, making cookies, drawing (Teresa) and writing poems (Isaac). They enjoy all the things they share, as well as the things that make them different. But when Isaac’s window is smashed in the middle of the night, it seems like maybe not everyone appreciates difference. Inspired by a true story, this is a tale of a community that banded together to spread light.

The Snowflake by Benji Davies (Harper Collins, $17.99) From Benji Davies, the award-winning creator of Tad and The Storm Whale, comes a dazzling wintry tale about trust and serendipity. Exquisitely written and beautifully illustrated, The Snowflake tells the separate stories of one snowflake and one little girl. Both longing for their own special place in the world, they spin together into a magical ending. The snowflake and Noelle discover that, wherever we go — and however we fall — in the end, we all find a way to shine. Perfect for fans of The Night Before Christmas (illustrated by Loren Long) and Dasher by Matt Tavares.

Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker by Jan Brett (GP Putnam’s Sons, $18.99) Jan Brett’s striking illustrations and the Christmas classic, The Nutcracker, are a match made in picture book heaven. Brett makes this classic her own by setting it in snowy Russia and adding whimsical touches to favorite elements of the traditional ballet. Enjoying this book will be an instant Christmas tradition for families who love the ballet or for those new to the story. As perfect a gift as Brett’s classics, The Mitten and The Night Before Christmas.  OH

Shannon Purdy Jones is store manager and children’s book buyer at Scuppernong Books.

Omnivorous Reader

Hell of a Read

A dizzying journey of the imagination

By Anne Blythe

The adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover is not one that works for the fourth novel written by Jason Mott, a writer and poet who lives in southeastern North Carolina. The title of Mott’s latest work of fiction, Hell of a Book, is in large, bold capital letters at the top of a black and yellow cover. Go ahead, judge it.

It is a hell of a book, one that explores racism, police violence and being Black in America.

It’s a novel — and a mystery, too — about a novelist with a vivid imagination. It’s difficult to know what’s real and what the writer is imagining. It’s also challenging to see how the main characters are connected, until the very end. Even then, there’s no certainty as to whether they’re truly bound in anything other than the novelist’s mind.

Mott pulls readers through a difficult and sometimes overwhelming conversation about “The Altogether Factual, Wholly Bona Fide Story of a Big Dreams, Hard Luck, American-Made Mad Kid” — his subtitle — with madcap humor, painfully poignant prose and a show-me-don’t-tell-me contemplative style.

The protagonist is a Black fiction writer on a dizzying book promotion tour, an unnamed bestselling writer who is whisked through a blur of airports, hotels and cities by a quirky cast of drivers, and a profit-driven agent.

We first meet him at 3 a.m. in the hallway of a Midwestern hotel, where he’s naked, locked out of his room and being chased by an angry husband who has caught the author with his wife. He runs after him, flailing at him with a large coat hanger.

As the protagonist is about to be caught, the elevator doors open, and he escapes into a new scene with his savior of the moment, an elderly woman bringing home groceries in the wee hours of the morning.

As the naked novelist and woman watch the hotel floors counted off in the elevator, Mott introduces readers to a sobering reality that becomes a central theme as the writer moves through his chaotic, alcohol-infused tour. Another Black male has been shot and killed by police, but Mott doesn’t give him a name. The old woman asks the novelist a question:

“Did you hear about that boy?”

“Which boy?”

“The one on TV.” She shakes her head and her blue hair sways gently like the hair of some sea nymph who’s seen the tides rise and fall one too many times. “Terrible, terrible.”

The novelist tries initially to go on with his celebrity life without fleshing out his feelings about “the boy.” He tries to push the latest outrage blaring on TVs and pulling Black Lives Matter advocates into the streets with signs and chants into that place deep inside himself where injustices stew without boiling over.

This time, though, the world is outraged, and the protagonist can’t tune out the calls to stop the madness or the cries to confront centuries of oppression and brutality.

The morning after the naked ride in the elevator, we meet The Kid, a mysterious but thought-provoking boy who might, or might not, be a figment of the author’s imagination. He looks to be about 10 years old, “impossibly dark-skinned,” and might, or might not, represent the all too many Black children lost to police violence.

We also get to know Soot, another Black boy in rural North Carolina, whose father tries to teach the power of invisibility, picking up on a theme in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man about not wanting to be seen by oppressors. We’re left to wonder how these boys are connected to the protagonist.

Early on, it becomes clear that the touring novelist has what he describes as “a condition,” an unnamed affliction through which he can blend an imaginary world with reality. His storytelling style, almost a stream of consciousness, can be disorienting but riveting, mind-numbing but thought-provoking.

On one trip from an airport to a book event, The Kid appears in the backseat of a limousine. He’s aware that the driver up front can’t see him, and he’s ready to test the author’s assertion that he’s just a character made up in his mind.

“Why am I not real?” The Kid laughs.

“Because I have a condition,” the protagonist says. “I see things. People too. They say it’s some sort of escape valve for pressure on the mind, probably caused by some sort of trauma. But I don’t go in on that. I haven’t had any type of trauma in my life . . . Nothing worthy of a Lifetime network movie or anything like that.”

Trauma eventually takes readers from the misadventures of the book tour to the dirt roads of Bolton, the hometown of Soot — and Mott as well, raising yet another conundrum. Is Mott’s Hell of a Book a novel, or is it more fact than fiction about a Black novelist from the South?

“Nestled in the sweaty armpit of Carolina swampland, the town of Bolton is the land that time forgot,” he writes. “The main exports of Bolton are lumber and black manual labor. The wood comes from the forests and swamplands — all of which are owned by the local paper mill — and the labor comes from the town’s seven-hundred-odd residents. I wish I could tell you that there’s something more than those two chief exports that comes out of Bolton, but there’s nothing else. Bolton isn’t a town that gives, but neither is it a town that takes. It’s the type of place that keeps to itself. It’s self-sustaining, the way the past always is.”

The past and the present need to confront, and reckon with, what generations of Black Americans have endured.

“Down in this part of the world, we got it all: fifty-four Confederate flags planted along the Interstate, statues put up by the daughters of the Confederacy, plantations where you can have wedding pictures taken of the way things used to be, we got lynchings, riots, bombings, shrimp and grits, and even muscadine grapes,” the novelist writes.

“Yeah, the South is America’s longest-running crime scene. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. But the thing is, if you’re born into a meat grinder, you grow up around the gears, so eventually you don’t even see them anymore. You just see the beauty of the sausage. Maybe that’s why, in spite of everything I know about it, I’ve always loved the South.”

It’s also the place where the protagonist, The Kid and Soot converge — without fully solving the air of mystery that surrounds them throughout the book. The enigmatic threads Mott so adroitly weaves together become more tightly stitched toward the end. Hell of a Book will make you think while also entertaining you on a helluva journey.

“Laugh all you want,” the protagonist writes as he and The Kid come to the end of the journey, “but I think learning to love yourself in a country where you’re told that you’re a plague on the economy, that you’re nothing but a prisoner in the making, that your life can be taken away from you at any moment and there’s nothing you can do about it — learning to love yourself in the middle of all that? Hell, that’s a goddamn miracle.”  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Creators of N.C.

Cultivating Community

Caroline Stephenson steps out from behind the camera


By Wiley Cash    Photographs by Mallory Cash

According to filmmaker Caroline Stephenson, “It’s all about storytelling.” She should know. She was born and raised in rural Murfreesboro, North Carolina, where she grew up surrounded by stories and storytellers. Despite the rich culture around her, as a young person, Stephenson believed that real art could only be found outside Hertford County. Her father, a retired professor and writer, and her late mother, an architectural historian, regularly traveled with the family to places like Norfolk, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and metropolitan New York, where they would visit museums and view films in art house theatres.

“That made a big impression,” says Stephenson, especially the films. “I wanted to do that.”

The restlessness that Stephenson felt as a coming-of-age artist in rural eastern North Carolina manifested itself not only in her desire to create, but also in an all-too-familiar angst-driven urge to leave home. Like so many young people who think opportunity and adventure are waiting somewhere else, Stephenson says that she “couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

First, she spent two years at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, and then two years at Boston University before transferring to Columbia College Chicago, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in film. Soon, she was living in Los Angeles, beginning a career that would carry her to places such as Prague, Vienna, Athens and Budapest, working as an assistant director on sets for films and television shows like Empire, House and, currently, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.

After marrying fellow filmmaker Jochen Kunstler and having two children, Stephenson felt a call to home. She and her young family moved back to Murfreesboro in 2010, where Stephenson came to terms with Hertford County’s rich cultural heritage as well as its incredible challenges. The county is 60 percent Black, and historical inequities in everything from education to home ownership serve to compound a poverty rate of 22 percent, much higher than the state average. The county’s struggles also have resulted in a dogged spirit of determination that immediately inspired Stephenson and her family to dedicate themselves to supporting the community.

“I’m driven by the incredible people where I’m from,” Stephenson says. “They created beauty, and, above all, they persevered and were proud.”

To tell the stories of the people of her region, Stephenson stepped behind the camera and relied on the talents that had taken her around the world. She made documentary films about Rosenwald Schools, which educated rural Black children during segregation, as well as a documentary about women who work in chicken processing plants in eastern North Carolina. Other documentaries and screenplays are in the works, all of them highlighting challenges that have either been overcome or are still being faced. 

Like any successful director looking for the best angles and working to make a production as seamless as possible, Stephenson is most comfortable being off camera, outside the glare of the lights.

“I like to be behind the scenes,” she says. “I want other people to shine.”

She also wants to make connections between the people and the organizations of Hertford County so they can support one another. In 2016, Stephenson opened Cultivator, an independent bookstore that quickly became a community hub. “We also sold local art and pottery, screened movies, held meetings and educational workshops,” she says. The store was the only bookstore within an hour’s drive in any direction but, as is the case with so many independent bookstores, it was tough to make ends meet. The pandemic made the venture even more difficult, and Cultivator closed its doors in April 2020, but the books — most of which were either donated or left behind after Stephenson’s mother, a voracious reader and book collector, passed away in 2014 — remained.

Stephenson quickly realized that not having a storefront did not have to stop the work of Cultivator, and so she converted her minivan into a bookmobile. “It’s just a folding table, personal protective equipment, and boxes and boxes of free books,” she says. “But we now serve more people than we served with the bookstore.”

The Cultivator bookmobile regularly sets up in front of libraries, grocery stores, big box stores and churches. Sitting behind a table in the parking lot of Murfreesboro United Methodist Church one chilly night in late October, a volunteer named Christina is handing out books at the church-sponsored monthly bilingual dinner. Young children, many of them Spanish speakers, tote armfuls of children’s books, some written in Spanish. When Stephenson’s name comes up, Christina, who has been a volunteer for 10 years, pauses.

“Caroline is who inspired me to get involved in the community,” she says. “She does for others.”

Andrew Brown owns a family farm with his daughter, Sharonda, and has partnered with Cultivator to address food insecurity in the community. Sharonda is the evening’s featured speaker. The family has also been the subject of one of Stephenson’s documentaries.

“Caroline got things going when she came back home,” Brown says. “You need someone like her to bring people together.”

Inside the church’s fellowship hall, tostadas and accompanying fixings are being placed on long serving tables as a line of hungry diners forms. A woman named Alejandra announces that dinner is ready. Pastor Jason Villegas greets everyone, moving quickly between English and Spanish.

“I met Alejandra at an ESL (English as Second Language) class at Cultivator,” Pastor Villegas says. When Alejandra joined Villegas’ congregation, she encouraged him to preach in Spanish to reach more people in the community. The community dinners began not long after.

When Pastor Villegas says the blessing, he prays first in English, then translates it to Spanish.

“Thank you that we have connection and unity here,” he says. He keeps his eyes closed, but he lifts his hands as if gesturing toward the people around him. “And thank you to Caroline Stephenson for bringing so many of us together.”

Of course, Stephenson is not there to hear this prayer or witness her community’s gratitude. She is overseas on a film set, operating where she is most comfortable, behind the scenes. OH

Wiley Cash is the Alumni Author-in-Residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. His new novel, When Ghosts Come Home, is available wherever books are sold.

Life’s Funny

Ted Talk

A few serious words about humor


By Maria Johnson

To: Ted Koppel

From: Me

Re: Stay in your lane

Dear Mr. Koppel:

“How do you do, Mrs. Wile-y?”

Do these words mean anything to you?

Didn’t think so.

I’ll explain them later.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m writing to you about your piece for CBS News Sunday Morning, the one you reported from the city of Mount Airy, N.C., which was the hometown of Andy Griffith and the inspiration for Mayberry, the fictional setting of the The Andy Griffith Show.

Some people have called your story a hit piece on the show.

I don’t think it was a hit piece.

’Cause I think you missed the point entirely.

But first, I’ll give you kudos you deserve. You’re awesome at crises. Really. When Iranian militants took 52 American hostages in 1979, you rightly dogged that story every night for 302 of the 444 days they were in captivity. Your show, Nightline, ushered in an era of 24/7 news channels.

So, um . . . thank you?

Also, a few years ago, you wrote a helluva book, which warned about the vulnerability of U.S. power grids to other countries. You did this country a service in writing the book. In fact, I stood in line so you could autograph my copy after your Bryan Series lecture here in 2018.

I gotta hand it to you. You’re a newshound’s newshound, with a deep understanding of foreign actors.

But your understanding of comic actors?


Stay home.

In your piece for Sunday Morning, you made an airtight case that Mayberry was an idealized place, a fantasy island that failed to recognize political and racial tensions in the years the series was shot, 1960–’68.

Very true.

In fact, the spirit of the series was rooted even farther back in time — in the 1930s and ’40s.

How do I know this?

Opie told me.

Ron Howard, the actor who played Opie Taylor on the show — and who has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most respected directors — recently teamed up with his brother, Clint, to tell the story of their growing up in Hollywood.

The book is called The Boys, and, as you might expect, it spills a decent amount of ink on The Andy Griffith Show, which launched little red-headed Ronny to stardom.

As adult Ron tells it, Griffith, who died in 2012, was at the height of his power when he created the show that bore his name.

He was coming off a successful radio career — “What It Was Was Football”— and a stint on Broadway. He’d just scored a major hit film, A Face in the Crowd, in which he played Lonesome Rhodes, a two-bit radio host who gains a following and “transforms into a lusty, egomaniacal demagogue.”

Interesting, huh?

“Elia Kazan was a brilliant director,” Howard writes. “But he had manipulated and provoked Andy to summon his darkest, ugliest thoughts and impulses, and the process about wrecked him. ‘I don’t ever want to do that again,’ Andy said. ‘I like to laugh when I’m working.’”

Howard continues.

“Andy, born in 1926, consciously set out to evoke the atmosphere of his youth in the 1930s and ’40s. People are nostalgic for The Andy Griffith Show now, but it’s important to realize that, even then, it was an evocation of a bygone era, and an idealized evocation at that.”

Still, Griffith showed that he felt the pinch of discrimination — in maybe the only way that he, a handsome, successful white man, could have. He was eager to dispel the myth that all Southerners are stupid hayseeds.

“One of his major motivations for the sitcom was to portray his world with humanity and depth,” Howard writes.

And Griffith did so, brilliantly, using humor.

Against the backdrop of innocence, Mayberry’s stories unfold, time after time, with fools and their foibles.

No character is spared.

Sheriff Andy Taylor himself falls short in several episodes.

Because the stories are made up — and the writers could make them end with fairy tale precision — compassion and understanding always prevail.

Humility is usually the lesson.

Laughing at our own shortcomings, as acted out by others, delivers the goods.

Which brings us to a character named Ernest T. Bass.

If he existed today — which he does, in many forms — he might be called developmentally challenged. He’s rude and crude, and he throws rocks through windows to get attention.

In one episode, “My Fair Ernest T. Bass,” a riff on My Fair Lady, Sheriff Taylor and his bumbling sidekick, Deputy Barney Fife — one of the funniest TV characters of all time — try to remake Bass into a well-dressed, well-spoken gentleman so he might snare a girlfriend at a society function.

Are they condescending to presume that they could, or should, change Ernest T.? You bet.

But they press on. They coach him on how to greet his hostess properly — “How do you do, Mrs. Wiley?” Ernest T. labors mightily to learn the greeting and a few other pleasantries. At the party, he struggles to make his well-rehearsed lines fit mismatched moments.

And we laugh. Because we feel the prickly heat of his discomfort. Because who among us hasn’t been caught flat-footed? 

The episode has a happy ending, of course. At the party, Ernest T. finds another sow’s ear pretending to be a silk purse — a woman who’s just as unpolished as he is — and they literally leapfrog into the sunset together.

Who’s the fool here?

I dare say anyone who watches the reruns could tell you, regardless of their political party. You made a serious misstep, Ted, in bringing presidential politics into your Sunday Morning piece.

Here’s my best Mayberry-esque arm-round-your-shoulder advice: Stick to hostages and power outages.

And leave us Mayberry fans alone, on our couches, with the laughter that takes us to places a news story can’t.

Best Always,


Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Email her at
ohenrymaria@gmail.com. By Maria Johnson