If I told you that eight children were abandoned by their parents, left to fend for themselves in a ramshackle cabin on the side of a mountain in 1940s Fannin County, you’d probably be skeptical. If I told you that, against all odds, they not only survived but went on to become successful adults, your skepticism might turn to disbelief. But it’s a true story, woven into a heartbreaking short novel by my friend Janisse Ray. Last night, Janisse introduced readers to the real Richard Woods, one of the last surviving members of the family she brought to life in her new book, The Woods of Fannin County. A nice crowd turned out in Janisse’s hometown of Baxley for an engaging discussion about the book. Mr. Woods’s daughters, Kim Woods Miller and Kelly Johnson, along with his wife and grandchildren, were also in attendance. Though Mr. Woods now lives in North Alabama, he stated that he also considered Baxley his hometown, having spent his formative years at the local Baptist Children’s Home. More on that later.
Richard Woods, a kind soft-spoken gentleman with no hint of bitterness about him, recounted his vague memories of the story detailed in the book, vague because he was so young at the time it happened. Almost anyone who has read the book wouldn’t fault him for being bitter. He remembers leaving the house in Morganton where the family was living by mule and wagon. He said he called his mother by her name, “Ruby”*, because she was never a mother in the regular sense of the word. He recounted his disdain for the old cabin and doesn’t remember ever sleeping inside, rather on or under the porch. He remembers stealing corn and having no food but hominy and wild berries and at least one helping of poke sallet. When asked why no one did anything about such a large family of small children being abandoned, he noted that his grandfather and other relatives had political influence in Fannin County. He was sure that the whole community knew the situation, but did nothing to help.
Salvation ultimately came from an old moonshiner who lived near the cabin and sought a solution from the local Baptist preacher. As a result of that intervention, the Woods children, except the oldest and the youngest, were taken in by the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home. They stayed briefly at the Hapeville Children’s Home before settling at the Baxley campus.
I was inspired by meeting Mr. Woods and hearing first hand his story, which could only be told by someone with a forgiving heart. He said as he and his siblings got on with their lives and families they kept the past in the past but they never forgot what they went through. He noted that they all dealt with it in different ways and at least one sibling never shared with their spouse their traumatic early experiences. Years after their ordeal, they all got together one Thanksgiving and began to write down what they could remember. Those memories are the basis for The Woods of Fannin County. The book is definitely worth a look. Your emotions will run the gamut from sadness to anger to redemption but you’ll be glad you read the story.
*-Many readers of the book want to know what happened to Ruby. Richard Woods’s daughter, Kim Woods Miller, has tracked down a lot of the family’s genealogy, but as of now, she hasn’t been able to track down when or where Ruby died, her death as much a mystery as her life.
Notice: This is an Amazon Affiliate post and purchases related to the discussed book will generate a small commission.