There’s a secret character in Sally Arnold: the Appalachian Mountains. “The setting of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia…were ideal subject matter for my paintings,” says illustrator Bill Farnsworth – “combined with the very real people of this part of America.” Author Cheryl Ryan lived on one of the mountain’s crooked ridges, where she’d heard the folk stories about Sally Arnold. Ryan lives in a tiny West Virginia town on a crooked ridge they call Sally’s Backbone – and decided to write her own story about Sally.
She dedicates it to “all who have ever gone down Sally’s Backbone to Fox’s store.”
A little girl named Jenny works in her grandfather’s store, but she knows most people shop on Saturday night, when they come for a weekend visit to the country town. When she’s bored, she plays her fiddle and pretends it’s Saturday night. There’s a checkerboard on a barrel and canned goods on the shelves. And the customers tell stories of a woman named Sally Arnold.
There’s a real sense of the town and its people, so Sally assumes the size of a legend. Sally has white hair and she looks like a witch. She lived by herself, in a shack which was “ready to slide into the creek.” She was always collecting things, sometimes searching the ditches for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “Maybe she’s just lonely,” thinks the little girl – who is already lonely herself. And on Saturday night, Sally plays the harmonica while Jenny plays the fiddle and her grandfather strums on a banjo.
There’s a mystery around Sally, and Jenny wants to explore it. One day after church, she follows Sally to her shack up the ridge. But instead she falls into the creek, her wet hair covering her eyes. The next thing she sees are “blue eyes framed in wrinkles,” as Sally Arnold has the last laugh. “Well, look what the creek brought me today! Company!”
And it turns out that Sally’s shack has a charm all its own. There’s hummingbirds in the flowers by the porch. A lazy cat stretches and yawns. Sally weaves “gathering baskets” out of the cattails she’s collected at the mud flats. Ands he understands the life of a bluebird carrying straw. “She gathers what she needs from what she finds and makes something new.” And soon it’s Sally and the little girl who are searching the ditches and road banks for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “They talk. They sing. And they never, ever walk down the road empty-handed.”