My third novel (the one I am still writing, the one with a looming deadline, the one that is consuming all my waking thoughts) is set in Dunlap, Tennessee, at the very tip of the Appalachian chain.  A fellow writer said that now I can call myself a mountain writer.  But I’m not worthy of that title, not if my sisters are the likes of Emma Bell Miles.

Emma Bell Miles

Jim Minick, a dear friend and author of the critically acclaimed, The Blueberry Years, introduced me to Emma Bell — a turn-of-the-century writer who lived only miles from my home here in Chattanooga. She painted and wrote both fiction and poetry, but it’s her daily writings documenting her hardscrabble life on nearby Signal Mountain that move me the most.

She wrote of mountain mornings, the heavy fog and lingering cold.  She wrote of the birds that warbled their songs and kept her company on lonely days.  And she wrote of losing her two-year-old son and the responsibility of preparing his body.  These words left me grieving her loss nearly 100 years later.

So I went to lift him in my arms for the last time.  But what a surprise met me when I lifted the cloth from his face!  The dreadful agony was gone; according to the Gaelic phrase, the Smoothing of the Hand.  The piteous gasping, straining mouth had eased into the old sweet petal-like curves; it was the mouth that had drawn his first life-milk from my breast, the lips that were always kissing me.  Such a fain mysterious smile, as when I have herd him chuckle in his sleep, and turned to wonder what he could be dreaming about.

As I spend day after day writing about the characters that move through the pages of my book, I turn to Emma Bell for encouragement, for knowledge, for inspiration.  I’ve been to her home place, to her grave, and to the library that holds her books and paintings and journals.

I feel her with me at times, and I can only hope she is guiding my hand as I tell my own story about a mountain woman who struggled to make a better life for her family.

Emma Bell Miles died too young, at 39, but our friendship has only begun.

Posted September 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm · 11 comments · Leave a Comment


  1. Connie Hein, September 20th, 2011, 5:58 pm

    Wow - Amazing Susan. Thanks for sharing this beautiful experience of getting to know this strong lady. I can see why she would bring you inspiration, jsut from the little bit you shared! Looking forward to getting to read your newest book! Can;t wait to meet the characters you make come to life!
  2. Anita, September 20th, 2011, 6:36 pm

    What a beautiful piece you have shared, and how wonderful to be learning about such a short remarkable life. I too can't wait to read your next book. I love the way you weave a story.
  3. Misty Barrere, September 20th, 2011, 8:08 pm

    Her story reminds me of my Mountain Granny's telling of rocking her baby brother through "bronchitis" only to have him die in her arms during the night. She was eleven and he was two. Her mama had died shortly after having him. They were tough ladies, but had soft places for their babies.
  4. Becky Brothers, September 21st, 2011, 9:18 am

    Amazing. So glad you're able to connect with someone like this and then bring her to us! Beautiful. Can't wait to read the next book!
  5. Charlotte Rains Dixon, September 22nd, 2011, 11:39 am

    I love this piece. I just got back from Nashville, and while there a friend drove me to see the Monteagle and Sewanee area, which gave me a bit of a flavor of the Tennessee mountains. The part about Emma's son is heartbreaking. By the way, I read Bezelia on my flight home and finished it on the plane. Great read!
  6. Amy Franklin-Willis, October 6th, 2011, 10:50 am

    The passage you shared from Emma was so gorgeously heartbreaking. What a fine writer she was. I hope she found some solace in writing about her precious son so beautifully. Thanks for sharing this.
  7. Randal patrick, October 13th, 2011, 7:00 am

    powerful imagery... great stuff Susan... Now I want to know more about Emma.
  8. Sarah Sullivan, December 2nd, 2011, 8:23 am

    Beautiful post, Susan. Reading that passage from Emma Bell moved me to tears. I want to know more and I look forward to your next book!
  9. Randal patrick, December 8th, 2011, 6:51 am

    How cool would it be to have some of her original art work!
  10. Charley, September 4th, 2014, 7:35 pm

    Here is my blog post ... web page (Charley)
  11. Cathy, October 27th, 2015, 8:26 am

    Very good information. Lucky me I ran across your site by chance (stumbleupon). I have book-marked it for later!

Leave a Comment

Susan Gregg Gilmore