Losing Yourself in a Story-Meet Author Joan Donaldson


harp_med                                                                         Joan at her harp.

Several years ago, after we moved to west Michigan, I met author Joan Donaldson. I’m not exactly sure why we met, but I think it must have had something to do with sheep. Before long, a deep friendship grew between us based on our love of writing, and also trying to buoy each other on the tough road to publishing.

Joan lives and works on an organic blueberry farm, Pleasant Hill Farm, three miles from Lake Michigan. Everything about Joan’s life is both intriguing and somewhat contradictory. She and her husband, John live completely off the grid, but with cutting edge technology. They often use oxen to work the fields, but have a state of the art blueberry processing facility. She sews all of their clothing on a treadle sewing machine, milks her goats everyday, and writes her books on a computer. It’s the juxtaposition of the farm wife/woman dressed in a period dress, sending me emails on her cell phone that brings a smile to my face.

Joan  is the author of two picture books and two YA novels. Her latest novel, On Viney’s Mountain won the 2010 Friends of American Writers Award, represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival and appeared on the Bank Street List of the Best Books of 2010. There is also a great prequel to Viney, Appalachian Trickster.Appalachian Trickster444-625

Her narrative nonfiction has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Jane’s Farm, Michigan History, A Simple Life and in an up-coming Farm and Ranch. She writes and records features from her farm for the local NPR affiliate, WMUK and you can listen to her podcasts here.

But my favorite book of Joan’s is her collection of essays on living life on their blueberry farm, Wedded to the Land: Stories From a Simple Life on an Organic Fruit Farm.


The title is another contradiction. There is nothing simple about what Joan and John do. From picking thousands of pounds of blueberries every season, to hosting gala dinners for the orchestra in their fabulous barn, Joan’s life is full and busy, and watching her work makes me tired. Life on the farm isn’t always easy; goats must be milked twice a day regardless of the heartache of loss. Drought, snowstorms, insects, illness and injury might hamper the forward movement of farm life, but do not stop it completely. Wedded to the Land is a beautiful glimpse of a marriage between two people who have made a commitment to a lifestyle not for the faint of heart.

“Whether she’s writing about the staccato of a hairy woodpecker echoing through the woods, tapping sweet sap from a cluster of maples during a spring sugaring ritual or mourning the loss of her ox, Tolstoy, Joan Donaldson’s sensuous prose shimmers and surprises. Her collection of essays, Wedded to the Land, peels back the skin of her blueberry farm with the precision and eloquence of a Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, and other agrarian essayists who make us pine for the lost heart of the country.” —George Getschow, writer-in-residence, The Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, former editor for the Wall Street Journal  “John thought he was building a garage when he erected a timber-frame building only a stone’s throw from the house we built on the back of our farm. While washing the dishes, I mulled over how pleasant it would be to look out our kitchen window and watch goats lounge in a paddock. If goats lived in the new shed, the walk wouldn’t be far when milking in the winter or during kidding season.  Once outside, I scanned the sixteen-by-twenty-foot framework. “You know, a couple of goats would fit nicely in here. There’s room for two stalls.” John’s hammer paused. I continued. “The aspens and honeysuckle on the north would shelter an outdoor pen.” I tied on a nail apron and picked up a hammer.


Read the first four chapters of On Viney’s Mountain, along with recipes for Maple Gingerbread and Carol Coleman’s Butter and Egg Light Bread by clicking on the book cover here where you’ll be prompted to look inside! I promise you won’t be disappointed.


 On Viney’s Mountain Description

Strangers have come to Viney’s mountain, and she is furious! The arrogant invaders are leveling acres of forest in her beloved home in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee to establish a Utopian democratic settlement in 1880, the dream of English writer and labor pioneer Thomas Hughes.

Sixteen-year-old Viney Walker is determined to sabotage their plans, but her sister Lizzie is thrilled, convinced that she will find a wealthy husband among the newcomers. Independent and uncompromising, Viney rails against the traditional fate of a mountain woman–marriage, children, unending drudgery–and prefers to focus on her true love and extraordinary talent–weaving.

But Viney hasn’t reckoned on Charlie Breckenridge, a handsome Englishman who takes a fancy to her. When she feigns a relationship with Charlie to put an end to the pressure from her family to find a man, her plot backfires in surprising ways, changing Viney and her mountain forever.

Editorial Reviews:

From School Library Journal

Grade 7–9—In 1880, in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, Viney Walker, 16, lives on a subsistence farm with her sister and brother. All are accustomed to long days of hard labor, but Viney makes time for her art—weavings that make warm blankets and add beauty to drab mountain cabins. When men from an English utopian settlement begin to tear down the forest to clear land for their new farms and town, Viney is outraged and determined to undermine the settlement. A few tricks, however, cannot stop progress, and the teen despairs of losing not only her way of life, but also her sister to the wiles of an Englishman. Just as she begins to appreciate what the settlement has to offer, and to fall in love with one of the young men who comes to work there, disaster strikes. Based on the life of Dicey Fletcher and the ill-fated Rugby colony, this book offers a glimpse into the lives of women in the mountains during this period. While Viney’s disinterest in marriage and family makes her unusual in her time, she is a somewhat drab heroine by today’s standards. Offer this novel to fans of historical fiction and light romance who won’t be put off by the absence of a happy ending.—Caroline Tesauro, Radford Public Library, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From the Author

While touring Historic Rugby, Tennessee, I could hear the faint chatter of the young Englishmen and women who came to settle that Utopian community. I marveled over the youth who waded into the wilderness and built the roads, the large inn, and also enjoyed the natural surroundings. But then I began to wonder about how the local Appalachians felts about the foreigners invading their rich traditions and way of life…and then I heard Viney speak.

When I returned to Rugby in 2009 to celebrate the publishing of On Viney’s Mountain, several of the local people thanked me for writing the story from their point of view and not from an Englishman’s sensibilities. Their praises are dear to me, just as I as thrilled when the State of Tennessee chose On Viney’s Mountain to represent Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival sponsored by the Libary of Congress and held at the National Mall in DC.

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