“That evening around dusk, she hiked up to Maryland Heights and sat on a cliff looking down upon the picturesque little town of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.”

The Wednesday Evening Book Group met virtually on Wednesday, October 13, from 7:30-8:30 pm for a special treat; Ben Montgomery, author of Grandma Gatewood’s Walk joined the group to discuss the book. He was full of life and energy, and shared some amazing stories! Read on for a taste of the evening’s festivities. 

The journey to publishing Emma Gatewood’s story began with a phone call. Ben was writing for newspapers when any writer’s ultimate dream came true: a literary agent called him up and said, “I like your voice. Do you have any book ideas?” That fateful phone call led to the memory of a favorite childhood bedtime story. The bedtime story starred Emma Gatewood — a distant relative with eccentric antics and eleven children, whose story included turbulent farm life, domestic violence, near-death experiences of every stripe, and finally, a second chance at life, as she hiked the Appalachian Trail for the first time at age 67. This story would be the seed of Ben’s first book. 

One man’s folksy childhood bedtime story, of course, is another woman’s treasured ancestry. Lucy Gatewood, one of Emma’s children, was put in contact with Ben when she was in her 80s. She was warm and open at first, presenting Ben with a scrapbook of her mother’s mementos, brochures, letters, but Emma’s story had belonged to Lucy for a long, long time. Now Ben was in the picture, and he had to earn her trust. 

When Ben visited for the fourth time, Lucy revealed that she was ready for him to take on the story. She opened a closet; out poured letters, scrapbooks, and newspaper stories about Emma, all carefully clipped, with errors corrected in Emma’s own hand. 

But for all the fodder he had — personal history, Unicorn Books of Outstanding Events, and testimony from the four surviving children (basically a biographer’s dream) — he lacked his subject in the flesh, and there were times when he had to acknowledge that lack. Lucy argued to Ben that “mama wanted to be first.” But Ben had to ask, how do you know? Looking back, there’s no written indication that Emma knew she would be the first woman to solo hike the AT, and Lucy couldn’t remember a conversation with that detail included. So Ben included the detail, but qualifies it by ensuring readers know it’s Lucy’s opinion. 

Similarly, one of our readers asked why Emma did the walk, deep down. Was it to heal from the trauma of her marriage? Again, Ben had to say that she never actually wrote that. But this walk occurred 20 years before the first diagnosis of PTSD, at a time when trauma was not discussed or understood. It’s fair to say “we don’t know” but it also feels fair to say “that’s the answer,” because it offers Emma the gift of a vocabulary she didn’t have. 

As readers, we learned about the detective work Ben had to do to write this book. While figuring out the structure, Ben realized he needed the story to have some shape and movement. Walking 14 miles per day doesn’t make for the most thrilling book-length work of nonfiction. Emma’s personal narrative arc was provided: the theme of overcoming — especially her abusive, violent home life. But what about the arc on the trail? Who or what would serve as the antagonist? While researching the historical context, Ben discovered a series of deadly hurricanes that occurred the year Grandma Gatewood walked her walk. That part of the story was not passed down orally, and it could very well be that she didn’t even realize that the torrential downpours she experienced were actually hurricanes. With a bit of natural tension, the story was ready to sing. 

We were unanimously impressed with Ben; he had us laughing and gasping in surprise and amusement. He is a fantastic storyteller and had us riveted with the story of how this book came to be. We hope to have him back for more JMRL programming! 

The Gordon Avenue Wednesday Evening Book Group meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30 pm. Register for the November meeting (book selection meeting for 2022) here, or the December meeting (The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes) here

For Further Exploration: 

  • Other books by Ben Montgomery to borrow from JMRL:
  • Ben Montgomery wrote a huge series of articles on the Dozier School — over the course of a decade. Those articles, like this one, inspired Colson Whitehead’s novel Nickel Boys. Read the JMRL blog post for Nickel Boys here. Read an interview with Ben about this topic here
  • The New York Times has an “Overlooked” project in which articles are written about “remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.” To read Emma’s “Overlooked No More” obituary, read the article from the New York Times for free at your local branch of JMRL (our NYT electronic subscription resource is in library use only) 

Other Books Mentioned: 

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