Synopses & Reviews
Brighten the Corner Where You Are was handsdown one of the most widely read and favorably reviewed novels of 1989. This story of a day in the life of Joe Robert Kirkman. North Carolina mountain schoolteacher, sly prakster, and family man, won the hearts of readers and reviews across the country.
"Deeply felt, warm, and funny . . . a wonderful tale, one full of wild humor and humanity."—The Los Angeles Times
"The resonantly lyrical novel enchants us . . . we are lifted to a height of exhilaration few current writers can take us to."—New York Newsday
"Brighten washes you with language. Reading it is like leaping into one of those streams in the middle of nowhere where everything is green and our childhoods wait to reclaim something lost, something astoundingly simple as joy."—Charlotte Observer
"A raconteur of extraordinary gifts, Chappell fluidly spins mountain yarns, weaning spellbinding myths, hypnotic dreams, hilarious dialogue and unforgettable characters into the warp and weft of a funny, poignant and very human story."—Orlando Sentinel
"At once lyrical and plainspoken, relentlessly funny and, at crucial moments, breathlessly sad . . . Brighten the Corner Were You Are is Fred Chappell's finest work so far and thus—I have been reading and writing and waiting forty years to say this—it's a blooming masterpiece."—George Garrett
"Deeply felt, warm, and funny . . . a wonderful tale, one full of wild humor and humanity."The Los Angeles Times
"The resonantly lyrical novel enchants us . . . we are lifted to a height of exhilaration few current writers can take us to."New York Newsday
"Brighten washes you with language. Reading it is like leaping into one of those streams in the middle of nowhere where everything is green and our childhoods wait to reclaim something lost, something astoundingly simple as joy."Charlotte Observer
"A raconteur of extraordinary gifts, Chappell fluidly spins mountain yarns, weaning spellbinding myths, hypnotic dreams, hilarious dialogue and unforgettable characters into the warp and weft of a funny, poignant and very human story."Orlando Sentinel
"At once lyrical and plainspoken, relentlessly funny and, at crucial moments, breathlessly sad . . . Brighten the Corner Were You Are is Fred Chappell's finest work so far and thusI have been reading and writing and waiting forty years to say thisit's a blooming masterpiece."George Garrett
This story of a day in the life of Joe Robert Kirkman, a North Carolina mountain schoolteacher, sly prankster, country philosopher, and family man, won the hearts of readers and reviewers across the country.
About the Author
is the award-winning author of over twenty books of poetry and fiction. His previous novels include I Am One of You Forever
and Look Back All the Green Valley
. He teaches at the University of North Carolina in Grennsboro, where he lives with his wife Susan.
Reading Group Guide
1. Chappell chooses to start his story with an initiation. Into what realms is the boy, Jess, being initiated by his father?
2. At what point in the novel do you begin to get a specific sense of place--the mountains--Southern Appalachia--Haywood County?
3. After being introduced to the hero-philosopher-clown in the first chapter, you may be so in love with him that you want to see him keep clowning forever. Or there may be non-comic attitudes that you wish he'd demonstrate. If so, what? See if any of these other attitudes are fulfilled later in the book.
4. "My father had declared eternal war on custom," the narrator says. What are other principles that guide Joe Robert's life? Society features so many customs, declaring war on them yields a wealth of good plot lines. Do other principles create as many interesting situations?
5. What do you make of Jess, the young narrator, knowing his father's private thoughts and out-of-earshot words?
6. Joe Robert believes that "God was something of a windbag, continually talking to mankind, but pitching His discourse beyond our abbreviated human capacities. His method was the optimistic, and God lost most of his audience." (page 34) Satire is a rather gentle form of persuasion. What is Chappell trying to persuade you of here? How familiar are you with satire? Has the use of it declined?
7. Jess says that he never waked ever in his life, but dreamed of his father as a mythological hero. Someday, Jess thought, he'd carry his father as Aeneas did his (in Virgil's Roman epic) "to the shores of the future." Are you familiar with the reference to the Aenead? Do you read the classics? If not, are you inspired to do so? Are the heroes of past ages relevant today?
8. What kind of role model is Joe Robert for his son? Is Jess going to be handicapped in any way because of his upbringing? What is his father's fate, do you think? (The answers to these questions are answered in the fourth book of the Kirkman quarter, Look Back All the Green Valley.)
9. In how many ways is storytelling important to our lives? Here's an instance. While Virg Campbell and Joe Robert are making efforts to revive a drowning girl, Virg starts telling a silly story about a rabbit-hunting tourist. "It seemed a fitting time for a windy," Joe Robert thinks. How so? Does storytelling act like magic? How so in your actual experience?
10. Are there any stories in Brighten the Corner Where You Are that you would be inclined to retell to friends?
11. If someone were to say you were acting "Kirkmanic," what would they mean?
12. Brighten the Corner contains references to other volumes in Chappell's Kirkman quartet--for example, the Bound for Hell Grocery and Dry Goods Store (p. 42), Johnson Gibbs, the war casualty (p. 60), Joe Robert's courtship with Cora (p. 96); Joe Robert's mother-in-law, as sharp as Clarence Darrow (p. 97); and more. Are you eager to read the other volumes? Are you caught up with the Kirkman family?
13. Compare Joe Robert to the Music Man. See page 52, where he says, "We got real trouble here."
14. Look back at question 3, which considers Joe Robert's potential for non-comic attitudes. Now look at the story about Lewis Dorson, the quiet mountain boy who came home a decorated soldier and ended up killing himself in Detroit. What are the themes that elicit Joe Robert's piety?
15. What are the virtues of a traditional, rural mountain family? (See page 62.)
16. Pruitt Dorson suspects that it was his son's book learning and not just the war that had hurt his son. Pruitt himself only reads the Bible. Maybe education "was not the cure but the disease," Kirkman concedes. Do you agree?
17. What does Brighten the Corner have to say about the teaching profession--about teacher morale (p. 51); the need for hand-on learning and good equipment (p. 68); memory aids (p. 74); the conflict between telling the truth and maintaining job security (pp. 91, 95); role-playing (p. 152); and Socratic dialogue (p. 159)?
18. Joe Robert, teaching science, takes the issue of Creationism head on. (p. 69) Would he get in trouble in certain schools for what he says?
19. Do you practice self-effacement? Can it be practiced in such a way that you can be taken seriously and yet not be considered superior? When and how does Kirkman do it?
20. In the primarily White mountain population of Brighten the Corner, Chappell gets to portray one African-American, Jubal Henry, the wise school custodian. Although one portrait can never stand for an entire race, how does Jubal reflect on African-Americans?
21. Does Joe Robert meet his match or more than his match in Jubal Henry? Joe Robert has his truthstretchers and diplomatic banter. What does Jubal have? What does he mean when he tells Joe Robert, "I am foretelling there is a hubcap on the table with cigar butts in it"; and then that the little plywood partition in the boiler room holds up the whole school. (p. 127)
22. How does the goal of being a wise man or woman fare among other goals in society? Are there such people as wise ones? Is Joe Robert one? Is it proper for a wise man to be foolish and even dense sometimes? See page 128.
23. Why does the Bacchus story take the turn it does at the end--when the goat talks and makes an amorous remark to Joe Robert?
24. As the "Socrates" chapter asks, "Is it of supreme importance" that the students of Tipton "should be conversant with contemporary scientific thought?" (p. 161) Does the truthfulness of science depend upon current (and changeable) trends in thinking? (p. 163) Might Darwin's theory of evolution one day be overturned? (p. 164) Does Scotty-as-Socrates misstate Socrates' opinion about Joe Robert's teaching methods. Do Joe Robert and Scotty make missteps in their discussion?
25. Why did Joe Robert misjudge the reactions of the school board so badly?
26. The governor's representative is happy to have Joe Robert's feat of saving a drowning girl "rise in status" in newspaper reports--for political reasons. (p. 190) To what extent are we all tall tale tellers? Where and when do we draw the line between telling things exactly as they are and making changes to improve the story? When is such story-making a "lie" and when enhanced truth?
27. What kind of a process does Joe Robert go through at the end? He quits his job, becomes disillusioned with Socrates, dismisses the honor bestowed on him by the governor, and learns of his favorite student's abdication of an academic career. Then he decides he's going to be a farmer and deal directly with the world. What's up? How do you feel about all this?
28. Why does Chappell make Janie Forbes one of the most prominent characters?
29. What is the "joke" that Joe Robert thinks he tells his wife at the end?
30. The last line in Brighten the Corner refers to Jess's mother, who, lying next to her husband in bed, dreams her own dreams, "pursuing her own exotic life." (p. 212) Why does Chappell end his book this way? Are there alternate endings, or is this the perfect one?
31. Is Joe Robert Kirkman a throwback? Who are the throwback characters in our world? Are they mainly romantic and appealing characters, or are they potentially effective ones?
32. What does Joe Robert mean by calling himself a "liar"? His friends call him that, too. It seems to be a compliment. Would you ever call yourself that? What does Joe Robert achieve by using the word?
33. What does Southern Appalachian literature and Fred Chappell in particular have to show the world about storytelling?