I have a hard time choosing non-fiction. I don’t know the authors well, so I often end up relying on awards, reviews and recommendations, especially when I know very little about the subject. And I know very little about the Appalachian Trail. I didn’t find Bill Bryson’s effort to write about it that interesting. Recently, my wife walked a portion of it with some friends and I read a children’s book about Grandma Gatewood because I am on an awards committee that presents an award for children’s biographies. So all that made me curious as I began Ben Montgomery’s book. It was his writing that got me hooked.
I often find that non-fiction writers do a lot of research and because they do so much research, they want to find a way to include it. All of it. Therefore, their books become better suited to be doorstops than anything else. But Montgomery’s book clocks in at a brisk 265 pages and perhaps inspired by Gatewood’s walking pace, Montgomery’s prose moves quickly. I’d look up and realize I’d already read 30 pages or so. I think Montgomery’s structure is largely responsible for the momentum of his narrative.
Those non-fiction writers who want to show us all of their research often put little thought into how to present it. Their lengthy, heavily-cited sections are difficult to wade through and tend to cause me to put books down for a while. But Montgomery, moving nimbly between Gatewood’s walk, her past, and his research makes the wise decision to subordinate his research to his story. While the weather is obviously a factor every day that Gatewood walked, when big storms are coming, we get a brief digression into meteorology and geography. I don’t know whether it was intended, but the digression also created suspense. While I already knew that she completed the journey, I wanted to know how she navigated the storms.
I was heartened by all of the kind treatment that she received along the trail and more than understood when she got a little irked by all of the press. And while Montgomery, with his use of maps, primary sources, and Gatewood’s own papers tells a great story about how she did it, he treads lightly when it comes to the question of why she left home one day telling her remarkably understanding family, “I’m going for a walk.”
He has his ideas and leaves them for the end. I appreciate the tone he used to express – not authoritative, not judgmental. He knew that his readers, like the press, would want to know why she did it, and she gave a wide range of responses over time. I figure Montgomery’s insights are probably better than most and the way he offered them was a perfect ending to a wonderful book.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake.