At its core, Walking to Gatlinburg is a story about 17-year-old Morgan Kinneson, who leaves his home in Vermont in 1864, a sad and terrible time in America, and heads south to find his missing brother, Pilgrim. In the hands of Howard Frank Mosher, a somewhat formulaic plot becomes something original and unconventional.
Over the course of his journey, young Morgan meets, fights and loves a cast of characters—including a woman who lives in a tree and an elephant named Caliph—that in lesser hands could be perceived as over the top. But Mosher has an uncanny ability to render both character and setting highly believable. His eye for detail, especially in describing the Great Smoky Mountains, is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s rendering of the greater Southwest, and his dialects sound spot-on to this reviewer’s ear.
There is also a mystical quality to Morgan’s odyssey, seen in the constant depictions of runes that act as both guide and symbol throughout the novel. Very early on in the story, a dangerous group of killers are on Morgan’s trail for befriending a black man named Jesse, who helped slaves run away to Canada. Morgan knows in his heart that his brother is still alive, somewhere in the South; but in his quest to find Pilgrim, he must now also defend himself against these deadly men, who pop up at the most inconvenient times.
What is so satisfying about Walking to Gatlinburg is that it can be read on so many levels. It is a wonderful adventure story, full of intrigue and plot twists, and it is the story of a young man coming of age, through many trials and travails. And finally, it is a story of love—not only the brotherly love Morgan has for Pilgrim, but the love he develops for his country and its people, in all their variations.
Mosher is a rare storyteller, able to both instruct and entertain, and he brings all his talents to this unforgettable and unique novel.
Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.