Bearskin to Holly Fork front cover
KET booklist pick October 2005

Fifteen short stories

cover blurb - Robert Olen Butler
cover blurb - Tom T Hall
introduction - Lee Smith
Kentucky Monthly - Steve Flairty
View from the Terrace - Ted Foster
The Mountain Times - Jeff Eason
Lexington Herald-Leader - Judith Hatchett
Arts Across Kentucky - Fred Brown
Wild Child Press - Barry Gilfrey

If you would like a personalized copy of Bearskin to Holly Fork shipped to you, our local independent bookstore:

CoffeeTree Books
240 Morehead Plaza
Morehead KY 40351

...will be pleased to take your order!



"Bob Sloan is a downright fine storyteller and his collection Bearskin to Holly Fork:  Stories from Appalachia finds him at his best.  Resplendent with the smell and taste and sight and sound of Appalachia, the book is also brimming with humanity.  This is kick-ass good work."

-- Robert Olen Butler
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, They Whisper, and more


"We write about what we know.  Bob Sloan knows as much about his characters as anyone writing today.  These are wistful, comical, straight-ahead stories that fall from the pen the way leaves fall from trees; some cosmic force helping them find their place."

-- Tom T Hall
singer, songwriter, author



New York Times bestselling author     Lee Smith

The whole Appalachian community of Midland, Kentucky, comes to life in this fine debut collection of tough, true stories, each one hard and dark as a lump of coal.  Bob Sloan's straight, plain prose style is perfectly suited to his characters and their lives.  They include, among others:  a hallucinating veteran, a mandolin player who has finally come to the "bad end" everybody has been predicting for him all along, carpenters, marijuana growers, millworkers, bootleggers, "Navy retreads," patient wives and wild women, miners and loggers.

Their stories are about work and family and hard times, and how a man can find release from these things upon occasion, such as Tommy Sewell, a lumberyard owner who is "fixing to throw his life away for a little bit of strange."  In one of my favorites, an unemployed logger gets into a lot of trouble due to a woman he meets in mad class ----his court-mandated anger management group held in a trailer behind the mental health clinic.  Here he describes her:

Mary Parton's beautiful is what she is.  Every time she moved I thought of hawks in high summer, soaring clean and easy, beautiful without ever thinking what they look like.  Outside the Doc's trailer, that's how she strolled over to me, graceful as a hawk.

"Gimme a ride home?" she asked.

In A Good Man to Talk With, our teenaged narrator tells us that the funeral preacher talked about...

what he thought Paul was...  But he never mentioned guitars or mandolins, and he didn't say anything about brown pint bottles.  He didn't say anything about being a good man to talk with.  He didn't talk about Paul at all.

The themes of some stories are surprising.  In Fire and Stella, a barn burning illuminates adultery.  A runaway wife and a dead baby figure in A Ride Across Open Water; while a mother's old boyfriend shows up at her funeral in Junior Blevins ----much to her son's consternation.  An old friendship is put to the ultimate test in Obligation.

It often comes down to people who have options and people who don't.  In Finding the Gate, an old woman in a nursing home muses that...

The young nurses who work in this place believe in options, in free choice.  I hear them often, earnest and convinced, assuring one another every woman has opportunities beyond only doing what men want.  Perhaps I had opportunities too, and settled on the wrong ones.  But looking back, it seems to me things just happened.

To her, these Kentucky mountains seemed to be...

a fence so high we could neither cross nor see beyond it.

Paradoxically, her wild, wandering son proved to be the saving of her.

If they arrive at all in Midland, options come mostly through love.  When Roy Carter's old friend Johnny Ellis turns up again like a bad penny, Roy shares an insight with his wife:

"We're not a whole lot different, Johnny and me."

But Roy has Janine; they've been together since age 17.

"You were my reason.  You wouldn't stand for it, and I wanted things to work out for us  ..Johnny never in this life had nothing at all to care about working out."

Whether things work out for his characters or not, realist Bob Sloan makes us care about them all, writing in plain honest prose without a trace of sentimentality.

Welcome to Midland.

          Lee Smith



A master of short fiction


Good short stories are
hard to write.  Those that res-
onate are coordinated combi-
nations of authenticity, good
dialogue that moves stories
along, and an almost gifted
ability to trust readers
enough not to tell them
everything -- only what they
need to know.  Bob Sloan,
who is also a frequent con-
tributor to National Public
Radio and lives near
Morehead, is a master at the

Sloan doles out 15 previ-
ously published stories over
135 pages and gives us a clin-
ic in what good short stories
are.  One can get all senses
activated -- can hear the
sound of tires rolling on gravel, see Harlan
Carter wheel himself up a redwood ramp built
for elderly or disabled tourists, taste the freely
flowing bourbon, touch Don Reynolds' partner
"Troop" (whom others see as a ghost), and figu-
ratively smell a rat when Bide goes for his com-
modities during the Great Depression.

The stories, often depressing and mostly
laced with potent alcohol, nevertheless are told
straight and with little contrived sentiment.

                        --Steve Flairty

38         KENTUCKY MONTHLY         OCTOBER 2003



Athens, Ohio...

Bob Sloan is in his true element when spinning a good yarn on the interpersonal dynamics of mountain Appalachia, either on paper or in person at the Blue Gator.  He is a frequent contributor to National Public Radio, and has published numerous short stories in literary magazines.

Bob and his wife, Julie, live on the family farm near Morehead.

The book is Bearskin to Holly Fork, Stories from Appalachia (Wind Publications, 2003), comprises of 15 true stories about individuals, usually awash in alcohol, coping with predicaments often of their own making - - coming to bad or good ends as things work out.  The stories are poignant, wistful, yet tough, hard as nails.

Sloan spins his stories in efficient honest prose, crafted to say just enough.  As one reviewer wrote, these stores "fall from the pen the way leaves fall from trees; some cosmic force helping them find their place."  Their being rich with humor, irony, Sloan's yarns are fun to read.  They are laced with the colorful vocabulary of the Appalachian culture - "hesitant, like a fat man descending a ladder."  But they also have a serious dimension and are also very well crafted to illustrate humanity and dignity in characters we might think as losers in situations bordering on the criminal - assisted suicide, getting even, getting away with murder - sort of...

Being a product of Appalachia himself, Sloan knows these people well; his writing is not overdone or contrived.  The reader will care about these people, warts and all.

Ted Foster, Newsletter Editor



THE MOUNTAIN TIMES      covering North Carolina's Northwest Mountains

Bearskin to Holly Fork: Stories from Appalachia     by Bob Sloan

Sloan, a short story writer from Midland(sic), Kentucky, has brought his entire community to life for the rest of the world in his new collection of tales.  Most of the stories are contemporary but there is a distinct connection that the people of Midland have with the past and their ancestors that keeps them from quite keeping up with the rest of the planet.

Sloan's characters are rough-hewn men and women who have long ago abandoned romantic notions about the lives they were born to lead.  His ear for dialogue is among the best in the business and you can almost smell the smoky air of Midland while reading his stories.

Before publishing Bearskin to Holly Fork, Sloan published his short fiction in periodicals such as Appalachian Heritage, Potpurri, and Buffalo Spree. His commentaries have been aired on Kentucky Public Radio stations and featured on NPR's Morning Edition.

Bearskin to Holly Fork is available at bookstores and through the publisher at: Wind Publications, 600 Overbrook Drive, Nicholasville, KY 40356. For information, email

        Jeff Eason



The fifteen stories in this collection introduce readers to a contemporary Appalachian world, the fictional town of Midland, Kentucky, and the conflicts and often thwarted hopes of its residents.  Louisville and even Berea College are far-off, strange places to people deeply rooted in one small community and its history and stories.

Sloan, whose commentaries have aired regularly on Kentucky and National Public Radio and who lives near Morehead, never romanticizes the region.  Instead, in prose as plain and direct as his characters, he tells of lives lived among dashed hopes, failed love, and infrequent opportunities to make things better.  Midland has lost much of the community and tradition of the Appalachian past, yet its characters cannot quite seize the prizes of the present.  Jobs outside the ever-unreliable mining and timber industries seem unthinkable, impossible to obtain.  Remaining at home and growing marijuana actually seems safer.

An old woman in the story Finding the Gate expresses the ambivalent view of most of Sloan's characters when she remembers that,

"once, at church, I heard a visiting preacher compare the high flint ridges rising all around us to the caring, cradling arms of Jesus.  It was a pretty image, but to me these Kentucky mountains seemed more a fence so high we could neither cross nor see beyond it."  For her, education and the dream of teaching school were to be gates through the fence.

Other Midland residents, however, just want enough work to be able to stay behind the fence.  In Timber, the narrator, laid off from his timber cutting job, is first forced to seek a GED in order to keep his benefits, and then is placed in an "anger management group" after going into a rage at being called a "displaced worker."  His dark humor underscores the absurdity of the situation when during "mad class," as he calls it, he is asked to role play his reaction to being cut off from a parking place:

I said, "There is so much parking downtown since the Walmart come in, what would be the point to making a big deal over one little space?"

When unions shut down the mines, when the timber industry comes to a halt, when tobacco can't support a family, and when Walmart closes small businesses, Midland residents quietly accept marijuana as a force in the local economy.  The title Symbiosis is particularly appropriate for a haunting story of loyalty and betrayal in the face of interdependence on the illegal crop.

In Midland, people know each others' stories, whether they choose to tell them or not.  In The Whole Story, 1969 the young narrator, laid off and waiting to be drafted, is at first excited by the drama of an old woman demanding that the local bootlegger refuse to sell any more liquor to her alcoholic son.  His first belief is that the business between Langley and Mrs. Allen sounded like it could turn into a good story, and watching it close up seemed like "a fine place to be."  He anticipates how the story will be told for years to come.  When the conflict plays out in a way that brings even the bootlegger to near tears, however, he realizes a communal responsibility to shape narratives in ways to protect the most vulnerable.  And in Jesse's Becky, Joe Sawyer learns the dark tragedy behind the family story of his cousin Jesse.  While all other family members moved north to find jobs, Jesse remained behind.  The family told Jesse's story one way:

"Jesse sure loves Hawkes County.  He'd starve to death down there before he'd leave Kentucky."

Joe discovers the truth of why Jesse could never leave, however, and realizes that a part of his family narrative will remain as false as the story a Louisville reporter plans to write about the same events.

Sloan makes the reader care about the people of Midland, to admire their loyalty and determined independence.  In Obligation and Fire, and Stella, Sloan depicts moral decisions made in the firm belief that

"This ainut the sheriffus business,"

and most readers will probably agree.  They will also agree that Midland is worth entering, that seeing the world through the eyes of Midland residents brings a dark and different perspective on the choices they make.  They will also enjoy Sloan's direct but evocative prose that makes both his characters and their beloved and bedeviling home - - stretching all the way from Bearskin to Holly Fork - - seem so real.

        Judith Hatchett
        Chair, Arts and Humanities
        Midway College


An Appalachian Wordsmith
(A review from the August 2003 issue of
Arts Across Kentucky magazine)
Fred Brown

  • Do you ever wonder where the words all go
  • When the leaves turn brown and it starts to snow?
  • Do they head for the hills and find themselves a hole
  • Or toast by the fire with old Bob Sloan?

Words.  They are our most intimate apparel.  With them we spark and rant, politic and remember.  They color how we perceive our world, and how our world perceives us.  In the end, long after our faces and the timbre of our voices are forgotten, our mannerisms, quirks and favorite flavors and colors faded away, our words may be all that remain.  If they are not honest, the generations that follow will discover it out, and they will be met with scorn.

Bearskin to Holly Fork, Bob Sloan's recent slim volume of short stories from Wind Publications, resonates with honest emotion.  Many of its characters are unforgivingly unforgettable, ragged and weathered as wooden tombstones staggering over sunken graves.  The memory of peach colored walls haunt a life.  An out of work logger tries his hand at running weed for a beautiful Delilah.  A childhood lover returns to mourn the lady who would not be his bride.  Fires of passion beget a fire of a more literal nature.  One mother gets her wish, and her son wishes her in hell; another experiences the whole wide world thru her son's wandering eyes.  The dead come back to haunt their uniformed killers.  And Tommy never, ever, mentions travel to Hubert again.

These are stories spun from the hands of a master.  Unflinching honest, sometimes bitter as the commodity grapefruit in Abide Coldiron's sacks, sometimes as full of salvation as Finding the Gate.  Some will make you smile, some will make you cry.  Every single one will make you think.  Because if you don't know someone in this book, you haven't been paying attention.

Bob Sloan has.


Wild Child Press
a book review by
Barry D. Gilfry © 2004

The ancient commission of the writer has not changed.  He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.
                    John Steinbeck in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1962


Bearskin to Holly Fork:  Stories From Appalachia is a collection of gritty stories populated by tough people, and author Bob Sloan certainly exposes the faults and failures of his characters, as well as sharing with us their merits and accomplishments.  Murderers, bootleggers, pot-growers, crippled war veterans, ex-cons and drunks rub elbows with sheriffs, waitresses, clerks, farmers, carpenters and the like.  Sometimes it is difficult to tell who is who, as often they are one and the same.

This meticulously edited medley is not only an enjoyable read but should be considered a textbook for writers.  Throughout, the author has sprinkled his wonderful imagery in carefully worded and structured sentences and paragraphs.

In Finding the Gate, the shortest story in this anthology, a woman who has lived all of her life in Appalachia says,

Once, at church, I heard a visiting preacher compare the high flint ridges rising all around us to the caring, cradling arms of Jesus.  It was a pretty image, but to me these Kentucky mountains seemed more a fence so high we could neither cross nor see beyond it."

However, she finds her way out through her son Stevie.  Even at the age of six, he is not limited by the barrier that he will soon cross.  After he was missing all one afternoon, his mother says,

...I took my son onto the porch and rocked him a long time in the summer darkness.  By and by, Stevie began to tell me what he'd seen.

"He found silver minnows in a dark creek, followed the water's flow to distant fields.  Crouched in weeds, he saw his father's sweaty labor in mid-day heat, laughed at curses Steven flung at our mule.  Fat groundhogs crept from hillside crevices, and their babies came out to play, ignoring Stevie as though he belonged in that wild place."

From The Procedure:  "Tommy's grown used to the way the girl placates her over-Jesused grandmother.  Each morning Marcie leaves the old woman's house wearing ankle-length dresses and the pinned hair of a Pentecostal maiden."

From A Ride Across Open Water

Raising his eyes a few degrees, Paul watched the island recede, winking neon pooled like a melted rainbow by the boardwalk."

The author also treats us to some plot twists and fantastic ideas:

In Fire and Stella, we meet Joe Caudill.  Joe's having a bad day...  or let's say a series of bad days.  As one-armed Joe watches while his barn burns, Joe's neighbor Randall wants to ask, "Was screwing Stella Oakley half a dozen time worth roofing nails in your driveway, sugar in your tractor's gas tank, and a burnt barn?"  Of course, Randall suspects Stella's husband, just out of jail, as does Joe.  Yet perhaps the answer lies much closer to home.

The story Troops is the closest to science fiction that you will find in this compendium.  Bob Sloan posits, What if the people you killed in war came back to haunt you - not to hurt you or to scare you, but just to remind you that war, after all, means killing?  Some ex-servicemen are able to live with these ghosts from their past; others shrink from fear.  For yet others, in particular two senators and a governor who had each molded his political career on his war record, a scandal arises when it is seen that the "war record" was a pack of lies.

Of the 15 tales, I had several favorites: Fire and Stella, Troops, The Obligation; but more than any other, A Ride Across Open Water shines from the setting of this book like a literary gem.  It is, in fact, one of the finest short stories I have read in years.  A Ride Across Open Water should be required reading for anyone wanting to learn how to write short stories.  I read this story again and again, but not because the tale itself is a happy one.  Au contraire.  It is a very sad account of two people who suffer a great loss; yet each reading revealed more of the characters and the circumstances.  The story is a wonderful blend of linguistic precision and lyrical beauty.

Open Water is basically about a husband on the trail of his runaway wife.  But we learn so much more about both characters as we read.  The author begins the tale with action and sounds:

"Ice rattled as Paul Fitch leaned over the cab of his pickup truck, fumbling in the cooler for another beer.  Snapping the can open, he dried his fingers on the knee of his work pants and glanced into the rearview mirror.  An arcing wake marked the ferry's progress across Colley Bay, light from Burnham's Island chopped into dancing shards of color."

"At five o'clock Paul had walked through empty silence filling his house like a bad smell.

"Twice in the week before she left, he came home to find his wife sleeping on the sofa, an empty glass that smelled of bourbon on the floor.  Both times a pink and blue baby book, purchased the afternoon a doctor confirmed Bea's pregnancy, was on her lap.  Paul's memory still held whole paragraphs from pamphlets and articles about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

"At the stern, Paul leaned against the rail and stared into the boil and churn of the vessel's twin screws, wind ruffling his hair.

"Paul never saw the ferry's wake without fantasizing a leap into it...  After they left their daughter in a cemetery outside Baton Rouge, Paul rode the ferry for hours, every day for a week.  He spent those days poised over the wake."

He knew that if he jumped, Bea would be left all alone.  Paul recalls how, "The brief period of wakefulness after he and Bea lay down together was Paul's favorite moment of any day.  Lying against Bea's warmth was sanctuary...  More than anything in the world, Paul wanted to climb into bed with his wife, feel familiar curves against his belly as he drifted off to sleep."

* * *


In his own words (taken from our July interview with Bob Sloan):

"My wife gave me the phrase 'blue collar fiction.'  It suits me better than any other label.  I write stories about Appalachian working class people, the "working poor," because they're the people who raised me, the people I live with, the people who matter to me.

"I grew up in a time and place with a very strong story-telling tradition, where people who could tell a good story were much admired.  I wanted to be like them.  Learning to read revealed a direct connection between what happened on front porches and what was between the covers of books.  Nights on the porch made me want to be a storyteller; books made me want to put the stories in a format that would last beyond evening's end."

The 15 tales in Bearskin to Holly Fork:  Stories From Appalachia may be centered around life in Appalachia, but the truths therein are universal.


Bearskin to Holly Fork: Stories from Appalachia can be ordered direct from the publisher, is available at amazon dot com and barnes and noble dot com, and can be ordered from the Ingram warehouse by your local independent book dealer.


If you would like a personalized copy of
Bearskin to Holly Fork:     Stories from Appalachia
shipped to you, our local independent bookstore:

CoffeeTree Books
240 Morehead Plaza
Morehead KY 40351

...will be pleased to take your order!

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