Our system of national parks should be celebrated as “America’s best idea,” according to the nature writer Wallace Stegner, whose characterization was popularized by Ken Burns in his 2009 PBS series about the parks.
But look beneath the grandeur of the great parks – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon et al – and you will find a complicated history of conflicting claims that is anything but grand.
That is very much true of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which covers portions of Tennessee and western North Carolina just above the northeast corner of Georgia. The most visited of all the national parks, Great Smoky serves as the setting for “Twentymile,” a first novel by metro Atlanta’s C. Matthew Smith that uses the format of a taut, page-turning thriller to also excavate those troublesome histories.
Like many of the parks, parts of Great Smoky can be choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic, and other areas are so remote that humans rarely set foot there. It is in those isolated areas that much of the action of “Twentymile” (the designation of a remote park ranger station) takes place. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Smith said the original kernel of the novel for him was simply “a good guy running from a bad guy in a difficult outdoor environment.”
Smith’s good guy is Tsula Walker, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation and an agent with the National Park Service’s Investigative Services Branch, which is a real, somewhat obscure federal law enforcement agency. She is tall, “physically formidable, with skin just dark enough to inspire suspicion, if not hostility, from the small-minded.”
The bad guy is Harlan Miles, whose family was forced off their farmland in the 1930s when the federal government used eminent domain to acquire all of the acreage within the park. Raised by a toxic father with a festering sense of grievance, Harlan now nurtures that grievance himself and has snuck back to the land with his two adult sons and an Army vet to reclaim the family homestead with a plan that has more rage than common sense. When a Park Service biologist accidentally stumbles across Harlan’s group, they kill him and try to cover up the crime, which is assigned to Tsula to investigate.
Although Harlan is a murderous man, Smith extends him a fair measure of empathy for how his worldview was shaped: “The men with their demands and papers. The governments who employed them and backed them with guns and corrupt courts. The politicians who proudly proclaimed this wide-scale theft a victory for the common good. At a young age, Harlan grew to hate them all.”
But Harlan’s ancestors weren’t the only ones whose land was taken from them. Thousands of Cherokee, as well as other indigenous American tribes, were infamously rounded up a century earlier, in the 1830s, evicted from their lands in the Southeast, and forced to migrate west on the Trail of Tears.
“When you start looking at the history of that park there are at least two eras when people had land and lost the land before it became a park,” Smith told the AJC. “It’s not talked about much now, how this beautiful and idyllic place was the subject of a whole lot of anger and resentment in the 1930s. And then you go back to the 1830s, and there are two groups of people who lost land under different circumstances. That’s a lot of room for resentment and complicated feelings.”
As a deadly snowstorm descends on the unforgiving wilderness of southwestern North Carolina, Tsula (her name is Cherokee for “fox”) finds Harlan and his followers, and a deadly hunt ensues, with escalating, violent switch-offs between who is hunting and who is being hunted.
Smith, a 47-year-old attorney who lives in Newnan, does not have any indigenous heritage and is aware of the possible pitfalls for a white author. “I had some trepidation,” he said. “I am very mindful of the history of people who look like me writing narratives about indigenous people that are harmful, that are lazy, that buy into tropes and imagery that were used to justify awful things.
“But if we don’t talk about who lost this land, then that’s a huge omission. The Cherokee inhabited that land for 10,000 years before removal.”
Smith did extensive research, talking to members of the Cherokee Nation who live in North Carolina about the issues the tribe cares about, as well as employees of the National Park Service about how they do their jobs.
Toward the end of “Twentymile,” a Park Service employee sums up the double-edged history of the Great Smoky Mountains and by extension many of the other national parks: “Would this park even be here if that hadn’t all happened? And I do mean all of it. It’s an uncomfortable inheritance. But if we own it, we own all of it, you know? The beauty, but the conflict and the hurt and the anger a lot of people feel as well.”
Although Wallace Stegner is attributed to saying parks were “America’s best idea,” it turns out he never claimed originality for that concept, despite Ken Burns popularizing the connection. Stegner acknowledged that he was paraphrasing someone named James Bryce, an obscure British ambassador to the U.S.
How appropriate to “Twentymile” that the widely accepted, easy version of history turns out to be only a part of the real story.
by C. Matthew Smith
321 pages, $17.75