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November 3, 2013

Local author tackles a worthy subject in book

Terry Cummins tells life of Caudills through woman’s stories

— In 1963, a groundbreaking book was written that would change the way America viewed the region of Kentucky known as Appalachia.

After “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” was published, the world changed almost overnight for author Harry Caudill and his wife Anne. Politicians, authors, social activists and other well-known scholars visited the family in their Whitesburg, Ky., home to witness first-hand the struggles of the coal mining community and its people.

Fifty years later, local author and News and Tribune columnist Terry Cummins in his new book, “The Caudills of the Cumberlands: Anne’s Story of Life with Harry” takes a look at the life of the celebrated writer and his family through Anne’s lens.

Growing up in Kentucky, Cummins was familiar with “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” since the book’s publication. Ten years ago, the New Albany resident discovered Anne also had moved to Southern Indiana soon after her husband’s death in 1990. An introduction was arranged and the pair realized they had much in common.

“We kind of just hit it off. I grew up 20 miles from where she grew up in the hills of Kentucky, so we’re familiar with the rural part of Kentucky. We both grew up on a farm,” Cummins said. “As I was asking about her life, she always told me story after story.”

And Anne’s stories weren’t just tales of her younger years. Regional folklore and other accounts of mountain life were infused in her tellings. Through time, an array of characters emerged, many of which played important roles in this nation’s history.

To Terry, Anne spoke of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 visit to the Eastern Kentucky coal mines and her meeting with President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Lady Bird Johnson at the White House.

Memories emerged of journalists and authors like Charles Kuralt and David McCullough joining the Caudill family for one of Anne’s grand meals. Family friends Mary and Barry Bingham, the publisher and owner at the time of the Courier-Journal, also were mentioned from time to time.

Cummins knew he needed to preserve all of Anne’s spoken treasures. A plan emerged that allowed the author to sit down with Anne and record her recollections every Monday beginning at 10 am. To assist in the process, the now 89-year-old would search through her storied guestbook, a place visitors over the past 50 years had signed their names. More than 4,000 different entries with dates are contained within their pages.

“I thought 10 or 15 interviews would do it,” Cummins said. “You know how many I did? Forty-nine. [When transcribed that turned out to be] 800 pages of interviews.”

While most of the book focuses on Anne’s 44 years with her husband, a significant part examines how and why Harry wrote “Night Comes to the Cumberlands.” Even today, many credit the book with bringing awareness as well as resources to the area.

Anne, too, played a role in her husband’s writing process when she would take dictation. Harry even dedicated the book to his wife, “With affection and respect to my wife, Anne, without whose assistance and insistence it would have never have been written …”

Harry would go on to write 10 additional books and become a leading environmentalist and scholar. His works and other personal papers were donated to the University of Kentucky, both he and Anne’s alma mater.

“Life is a story and her life and Harry’s life has been unbelievable,” Cummins said.

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