For Loudoun author Meredith Battle, Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park has been a lifelong happy place. But she wasn’t afraid to tackle the dark side of the park’s history in her first novel, “Go Down the Mountain.”
Battle’s literary debut, published in April, is based on the real-life displacement of hundreds of central Virginia families in the 1930s to make way for the development of Shenandoah National Park. And while the book is a fictional coming of age story, it’s resonating with descendants of the displaced.
“I thought the most rewarding part would be to hold [the book] in my hands and see it for sale in a bookstore,” Battle said. “But the best part has been on social media hearing from people whose families were displaced. … The fact that people are trusting me with their stories now is so wonderful.”
Battle’s novel is based on actual events and involved extensive research, but it’s also a fictional adventure story, with a juicy storyline that includes murder, romance and an engaging heroine. Battle’s main character, Bee, is a teenage beauty whose father is killed in a snake handling accident, leaving Bee with her abusive mother and the prospect of being forced off the land her family had lived on for generations.
Battle, who lives in Waterford with her husband and 10-year-old son, is a Fairfax County native who grew up exploring Shenandoah National Park with her family. During a hike in the park years later, she came across the ruins of a homestead that inspired her to research and write the book.
“I love the park and always have, and so it was tough to learn what had been done to the people who lived there in order to make this park that I’d enjoyed without thinking twice about them because I didn’t know their story,” Battle said.
Battle delved into the backstories of families who were displaced, including hours of recorded interviews with displaced residents curated by James Madison University. The novel’s heroine is sent to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, a real institution that operated in Lynchburg in the first half of the 20th Century as part of the eugenics movement that attempted to isolate—and in some cases sterilize—Appalachian people who were considered culturally inferior.
Battle, a former journalist and political consultant, says her research was rewarding, but creating her characters and fictional adventures was a highlight of the experience.
“I loved imagining the characters and writing about them,” she said. “I had always wanted to write a novel, but this just sort of wrote itself because I felt so strongly that I wanted to get this story out.”
Since the book’s publication this spring, Battle has connected online with descendants of the Shenandoah families, along with readers from across the country whose ancestors experienced similar displacements related to public projects. Battle is now in touch with organizers of the Blue Ridge Heritage Project, which is working to build monuments to displaced families in the affected Central Virginia counties, and will attend the annual homecoming event organized by descendants at the national park in October.
Battle said most of the descendants she’s in touch with accept the park as a beloved resource but want to acknowledge the dark side of its history.
“I think their goal is just to see that people are remembered, that their sacrifices are remembered,” Battle said. “It is what it is. We have the park now, but let’s learn this story and remember them for it.”
For Battle, who moved to Waterford three years ago after a string of moves for her husband’s career with the U.S. Air Force, writing “Go Down the Mountain” allowed her to reconnect with her home state while her military family was stationed in California.
“‘Go Down the Mountain’ is a book I wrote about my home when I lived on the other side of the country and could only go there in my mind,” she said.
When her husband retired, Battle said she got to choose where they’d settle down—and returning to Virginia with their young son was a priority. Battle remembered trips to the Waterford Fair as a girl, and her family found a historic home in the village.
“It’s been such a lifelong dream to write a novel, and since I was little, I wanted to live in Waterford,” Battle said. “Two lifelong dreams have come true.”
Meredith Battle kicks off a regional book tour with stops in Front Royal and Winchester this month and with readings in Shepherdstown, WV, and Frederick, MD, on tap later this summer. She’ll also give an author talk at JMU in September. “Go Down the Mountain” is available at Amazon.com. For more information