“It turned my life around.” That idea is so prevalent in our life experiences. It is a religious theme; it is a practical everyday experience. Sometimes it refers to things that happen once, while at other times, it refers to processes or series of events. In the Christian community, we speak of someone being saved, of someone getting religion, of someone finding God. There are also those experiences that open up worlds to us that we did not know existed. Maybe it was the discovery of a talent we did not realize we have. Maybe it was a career choice, a marriage partner, or a friendship.
Quite often it is a book.
We go through life thinking a particular way, and then we read a book that (usually unexpectedly) changes our whole way of seeing and living life. There are many stories of someone’s life being turn around. In many of those stories, it is another person who changes the character’s life. It is the experiences of the story, no doubt, but there almost has to be a mentor, a guide, and an interpreter. For Dante the character in Dante the poet’s Divine Comedy, it was Virgil the ancient Roman who first guided the wayward pilgrim through the underworld and then up the slopes of Purgatory. At a later point, it is Beatrice who guides Dante. Huck Finn was a troubled young man with a bad father, with oppressive female guardians, and with a buddy named Tom Sawyer who had no understanding of reality. It was the slave Jim who shows Huck what love and friendship are.
A less known literary character is Didway Hargis of Greenup, Kentucky. Didway, when we first meet him, was being beat up by some town bullies. Basically, Didway is being beat up by life. He is fourteen and born to relative wealth and privilege. He is a good student who learns nothing. He is taught everything pertinent to having an irrelevant life. He is weak, spineless, and ignorant of God’s world and manliness. In spiritual terms, he needs a savior and a conversion. Saviors in literature are unexpectedly different, just as the Savior in the Bible was unexpectedly different. Didway’s salvation comes when a hill-billy older kid rescues him from bullies. The older kid, named Jud Sparks, goes by the name “Sparkie.” He offers Did a whole new way of life. He offers to take him to a world that is beyond his imagination and beyond his experiences. Actually, that world is only ten miles away, but it is up in the hills and far off from town.
This is the story of the amazing transformation of Didway Hargis as found in Jesse Stuart’s novel Hie to the Hunters. It is the story of a boy going down the road to manhood. But he had to have a mentor, and that was Sparkie. And he had to have a quest, and that was life with the Sparks in Plum Grove Hills. Did was spoiled, effeminate, pampered, weak, and pasty white. He was not even aware of the world of God’s creation around him. Leaving the town and living with Sparkie and his family unfolded a whole universe of power, beauty, and meaning in Did. Living with the Sparks family meant sleeping in the hay in the barn loft. If the weather was cold, it meant taking a hound dog up to the loft for warmth. It meant using an axe and a crosscut saw cutting up trees into firewood. It meant plowing in the fields all day, and maybe hunting all night. It was a world of the music of fox hounds, of the scenery of God’s changing seasons, of the smells of the earth, of firewood, and good food. There were corn shuckings and barn dances. There was hard physical work and great delight in music and love. There was danger and community. Jesse Stuart wrote a kid’s story in Hie to the Hunters. But it is the kind of story that we don’t outgrow.
I first read this book back around 1971. I was in ninth grade. I envied Did for getting to enter into the world of the Sparks family. When I recently reread the book for about the fifth time, I envied Did again. Part of what is so amazing about this adventure story is the extent to which Did simply starts seeing. He was so limited and confined in his world that he could not see, touch, or enjoy the world around him. He could not grow and develop. He was a loser who was being undone by life. By the end of this story, Did can hunt, plow, dance, fire guns, and even help apprehend a local arsonist. Seeing the world of the Sparks family and the intense love they have, Did is even able to better appreciate his own world. I have recently enjoyed guiding another group of junior high students beyond the town and the highway to the trail that leads to the world of Hie to the Hunter. The book is a favorite of my students.
In order to enjoy it even more, we had “Hie to the Hunters Day” on April 29 at Veritas Academy. My students dressed like the people in the story. Even better, we brought food and ate like the people in the story. I remember that from my first reading, Jesse Stuart gave me an appetite for good country cooking.
When Didway Hargis eats his first meal at the Sparks, here is what they had: “There was a dish of steaming hot soup beans, a dish of fried potatoes, pork ribs, kraut, pumpkin, a dish of apples, two small dishes of jelly, and coffee and milk. There was a flat plate of brown cornpone with steam oozing from the places where the brown crust was broken. “ We had a similar big meal today. There were lots of beans, rice, and cornbread. We also had sausage gravy and biscuits, and one of my wife’s specialties, Hoppin’ John, a soup made up of ham and chicken with blackeyed peas, carrots, and collard greens. We had side dishes of potatoes and greens, along with ham steaks. Dessert was a table full of pies: apple, blackberry, peach, and cheery. Needless to say, all afternoon I have felt stuffed. A feller really needs to be out physically working after a big meal of this sort.
I read a lot of Jesse Stuart in high school, but somewhere along the way, I took about a 25 year break from reading his books. The good part is that there are still books I have yet to read. In the last year or so, I have read two previously unread ones. They were his early poems in Man With a Bull Tongue Plow and his autobiographical To Teach, To Love. I cannot imagine, however, any Stuart book that can surpass the life-changing and fun adventures found in Hie to the Hunters.