By Parks Lanier, Jr. © 1984
Issue: August, 1984
(A Special Column by Readers Requests)
FOLLOW THE RIVER: A Novel Based on the True Ordeal of Mary Ingles by Alexander Thom, Ballantine Book #31210, 406 pages, $3.50 paper.
TRANS-ALLEGHENY PIONEERS by John P. Hale, newly edited by Harold J. Dudley, 411 Albert Ave., Wilson, N.C. 27893, $15.00 cloth; $7.95 paper from Dr. Dudley. 422 pages, with index.
ESCAPE FROM INDIAN CAPTIVITY: The Story of Mary Draper Ingles and Son Thomas, edited by Roberta Ingles Steele and Andrew L. Ingles. 40 pages. $3.50 postpaid from Mrs. Steele, P.O. Box 3485 FSS, Radford, Va. 24143.
Virginia's only outdoor historical drama, THE LONG WAY HOME at Radford, Virginia, is based on the Indian captivity of Mary Draper Ingles in 1775. Carried west by the Shawnees beyond the present site of Cincinnati, Mary Ingles made her escape with an old Dutch woman, and together they followed the rivers back to Draper' s Meadows, near present-day Blacksburg. Their harrowing ordeal of forty days in the wilderness makes up most of Thom's novel FOLLOW THE RIVER.
That story is also the most interesting part of Hale's TRANS-ALLEGHENY PIONEERS, first published in 1886. Hale was Mary Ingles' great-grandson. Her story occupies about 100 pages in his history, and was an important source for Thom's fictional re-creation.
The most authentic account, of course, is that written by Mary Ingles' son John. The manuscript is in the library of the University of Virginia, but available in monograph from Mrs. Steele (see above). She and her brother have carefully preserved the style of the original in their editing and annotating. They also are descendants of the brave pioneer woman.
No account, fictional, historical, stage, or movie, can ever adequately convey the hardship and heroism of Mary Ingles and the old woman. Together, however, these three books make a powerful impact on the reader's imagination. Hale and Thom are both unflinching in their depiction of brutalities. What Thom offers is some plausible accounts of emotional reactions. As good as he is with interaction between characters, Thom himself reminds us "Mary Ingles' main adversary in the forty-three days of her remarkable trek was the wilderness." Certainly that was true, but Thom is also aware of the wilderness within, and how difficult it is to be human among the most inhuman circumstances.
Particularly good is Thom's account of the old Dutch woman. Her descendants are not around to mind the description of her as "a braying ass," so Thom has a wonderful time with her. I am surprised, however, that he is so definite about her being Dutch (from Holland) and not merely Deutsch (Germanic), as in "Pennsylvania Dutch."
Wonderful, too, is Thom's account of how, in the wilderness, the two women eat anything and everything, often with near-fatal results. From the symptoms, one can almost be certain of the wild roots they ate, without their being named. Varieties of Dicentra, such as Bleeding Heart and Dutchman's-breeches, cause the kind of trembling, staggering, and convulsions they experience.
The amount of work Thom had to do beyond the mere reading of historical accounts was considerable, and is immensely rewarding to the reader. One can tell he traveled in (some of) his subjects' footsteps. Poor William Ingles' realization, "he could not have done what (his wife) had done," may contain some of Thom's own feelings as he walked the mountain paths.
A small DAR marker on the road to Smithfield Plantation at the edge of the VPI (VA Tech) campus marks the approximate site of Draper's Meadow where the massacre occurred and Mary Ingles' adventures began. It was twilight and a full moon was rising when last I stood there, the same moon Mary Ingles admired from her cabin yard. In the distance, traffic boomed on a wide smooth highway over the mountains and across the rivers into the ancient lands of the Shawnees. Much has changed. But thanks to the novelist, the dramatist, and the historians, we can have a glimpse into what that land once was like, and into the hearts of the people who helped make it the great land it is today.