The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In time, the Cherokee would lose their Paradise to the settlers who came to the mountains of Appalachia.  But long after they were gone, they would live on in the settlers hearts and minds and in the dark-brown eyes and the long black hair of mountain men and women."....  ...Tom Cordle, The Disappearing Cemetery (2002).

Commentary of the Day - December 2, 2002:  The Disappearing Cemetery by Tom Cordle - A Review.

The Irascible Professor occasionally publishes reviews of books related to education. The Disappearing Cemetery by Tom Cordle, who is one of our regular guest commentators, is a book that doesn't fit neatly into that category.  In fact, it doesn't fit neatly into any category.  Nevertheless, it is a book that we are pleased to recommend to our readers.

The Disappearing Cemetery is a fascinating mix of prose, poetry, history, commentary, and mountain tale.  In this book Tom examines more than 2000 years of history from the perspective of a small community in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee.  He expertly weaves the story of a tiny, neglected family cemetery near the town of Tellico Plains in the East Tennessee mountains with the cross-currents of history that ultimately created the current mix of Tellico Plains residents.  These are mostly mountain folk whose families have lived in these hills since the days of the Cherokee but who now share their out-of-the-way paradise with recent migrants from the big cities who seek an escape from the pressures of urban life.  As Tom says in his preface:

History is art painted with words rather than oils or watercolors.  It is colored by perception and prejudice like any other painting, and so it is only a reflection of reality.  At least reality may be observed in creating other kinds of paintings, but history can only be drawn from observing the paintings of others.  In choosing these paintings, and what to include and omit from them, the painter of history judges.

Some feign objectivity, but that is only an illusion.  History must judge else what is the point of history?  To paraphrase Santayana, history not judged is history repeated.  Well, not exactly.  Mark Twain said it best.  "History doesn't repeat itself; it rhymes."

So -- this is a painting that rhymes sometimes.  The subject is a little mountain town in East Tennessee.  But to complete this painting other stories must be told as well -- background reveals much the subject cannot.  The context in which a painting hangs is also important, as is its frame.  This painting hangs in the mountains, and it is framed by The Disappearing Cemetery.

From the Roman invasion of the British Isles to the European colonization of North America, to the Revolutionary War, to the Civil War, to modern America, Tom Cordle tells the story of the Scotch-Irish settlers of the East Tennessee mountains, and in telling the story he captures the flavor of the historical times with an insight seldom encountered in historical literature.  History's winners and the losers as well as fascinating individual characters in this long journey are given remarkable voices in Tom's tale.  At 347 pages this is no conventional history book.  Nor, is it in any sense a revisionist rant.  Instead, it is an unvarnished look at both the good and the bad in human nature that has driven the broad sweep of American history.  Unlike many who write history, Cordle is not afraid to express an opinion.  But, his opinions are not overbearing, instead they are grounded in an exquisite sense of simple justice.

Cordle also is a master story teller.  Very few can make history come alive so vividly as Tom does.  This is a great book to read for pure enjoyment, and it also is a great book to give to that student who finds ordinary textbooks much too boring to read.
The Disappearing Cemetery (ISBN 0-9722039-0-7) by Tom Cordle is available from Talking Leaves, PO Box 598, Tellico Plains, TN 37385 ( ) .


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.