John (Marsden) Ehle (Jr.) Essay - Critical Essays

Ehle (Jr.), John (Marsden)


John (Marsden) Ehle (Jr.) 1925–

American novelist and nonfiction writer.

Primarily a regional writer, Ehle realistically depicts the people and dialects of the South, yet centers his works around common human problems. Ehle is known for his nonstereotyped portrayals of black characters, particularly in his first novel, Move Over, Mountain (1957). His nonfiction Free Men (1965) recreates a little-known civil rights incident that occurred in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the early 1960s. The work is significant for the insights it gives into the civil rights movement as a whole.

Ehle is at his best when writing about the mountain people around his hometown, Asheville, North Carolina. His recent novel, The Winter People (1982), which takes place in that setting during the depression, is praised for authenticity of characterization and dialogue. Most of his other fiction is set here or in similar areas, though in different historical periods.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Paul Flowers

John Ehle has created a readable novel ["Move Over, Mountain"] about a Southern Negro, and if he deserves no other encomium, he should be praised for a fresh approach to the Negro's big problem, and his splendid avoidance of the trite theme in which Uncle Tom's great-grandson always must be the victim of a latterday Simon Legree. Mr. Ehle turns a spotlight on human beings in their struggle through a world where natural selection is the rule. The fact that the central character and nearly all the rest are Negroes is incidental. It is a story of struggle, determination, peculiar moral convictions and strange loyalties….

Through travail, doubt, fear and frustration, Jordan moves to gain money and better position for his family; such obstructions as block his path are put there by others of his own race; in short, this is a success story in the familiar American tradition, and race has little to do with it beyond the frequently voiced theme of a promised land "up North."…

[It] is quite obvious that [Mr. Ehle] writes from a deep knowledge of his subject, and an understanding of technique rare in a first novelist. As we have said, he gives refreshing emphasis to a fact frequently ignored by "social problem" novelists—namely, that human problems in reality have little to do with geography or even race; that men, of whatever breed, who are tough and durable frequently triumph over adverse environments. No one will pity Jordan Cummings because he was a Negro. Readers will admire and respect him because he was a man.

Paul Flowers, "Jordan Cummings, Lord of Tin Top," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 21, 1957, p. 18.

Coleman Rosenberger

Mr. Ehle's "Move Over, Mountain" is an engaging book, a warm-hearted story of a North Carolina family which the author quite obviously respects and admires, told with insight and humor and a fine narrative sense….

If Mr. Ehle rejects an easy stereotype of a Southern town for something more difficult to achieve, the realistic recreation of the kind of town which he has lived in and knows, his rejection of stereotypes in his characterizations is even more refreshing. It happens that Jordan and his family are Negroes. This fact involves them in some special circumstances, but the special circumstances are less momentous than those which are common to all the citizens, Negro and white of the community.

Jordan and his family are individuals. They are people with problems, but they are people, with all their various strengths and weaknesses, and not just problems. And the problems they have are those which, in one way or another, all human beings are likely to be heir to.

This is something rather unusual in a Southern novel. Perhaps Mr. Ehle, who was born in 1925, speaks for a new generation of Southern writers. In any event, to read "Move Over, Mountain" is a very happy experience.

Coleman Rosenberger, "Warm-Hearted Story of a Southern Family," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1957, p. 6.

Abraham Barnett

[Move Over, Mountain] is the story of Jordan Cummings, a North Carolina Negro who is able to triumph in business and preserve his family life when he gives up his desires to go North to seemingly easier success. The author's intrusive theme that a satisfactory economic and spiritual life for southern Negroes today merely awaits an inner resolution on their part is faultily based on the extremely simplified situation of the hero whose problems seem to have no important connection with racism but rather with his delusions about the North. The effects of Southern racism on Negro enterprise and migration are seriously underestimated. Although he resorts to the device of a dice game to bring the hero out of the nadir of his career, this white Southern author evidently respects his Negro characters. Despite the unrelieved colloquial style and sketchy characterization which add to the thematic flaw, the story of Jordan Cummings' travail and success holds our interest.

Abraham Barnett, in a review of "Move Over, Mountain," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, June 1, 1957; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1957 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 82, No. 11, June 1, 1957, p. 1536.

Herbert Mitgang

The hero of this biography ["The Survivor: The Story of Eddy Hukov"] is a former member of the S. S., one cruel arm of Nazi Germany's terror, but if he has acknowledged his past misdeeds or repented, readers will have a hard time finding where. John Ehle describes his story as a "heroic adventure on three continents" and Eddy Hukov as "one of the world's stateless persons." This language is an insult to the real refugees and displaced persons of war and a rephrasing of recent history.

Hukov was born in Lvov, Poland, of German parents. He joined the S.S., fighting bravely for them, winning the Iron Cross First Class. After learning that his family had been killed in an American bombing raid, the young Storm Trooper became a still more avenging fighter.

When Americans captured his unit Hukov asked another S.S. man to cut out from his skin the S.S. tattoo…. Hukov went underground, afraid to be discovered. He worked his way into a refugee camp, an oppressor among victims. Without papers, without the courage to face the peacetime consequences of his wartime affiliation, Hukov was ripe for the blandishments of a French Foreign Legion recruiter in Germany….

Hukov and two Germans finally escaped from the Legion. They went to Thailand, and Hukov has remained there ever since. He is a man without a passport. Free Germany will not give him one and does not want him….

Mr. Ehle, a novelist and teacher, first heard the Hukov story from a traveling friend and then pursued the story via the mails. He has done the difficult job of assembling a biography without ever meeting his subject, and has attempted to retain Hukov's style. Whether he has captured the true personality of his subject one can only guess.

Herbert Mitgang, "Looking Backward," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1958, p. 31.

Allen Ward

This dramatic novel ["Kingstree Island"] about fisherfolk who live on a wind swept island off North Carolina is remarkably like the scenario for a Hollywood epic. The year is 1938, but the people of Kingstree Island are cut off from the main stream of American life by a four-hour boat trip and their existence, as John Ehle describes it, is simple but violent in a way reminiscent of life in the old West nearly a century ago. Thus it is, perhaps, appropriate that this straightforward story is remarkably like a very good Western. Even the hero is the traditional wandering stranger.

Brandon Rhodes, a 24-year-old Southerner described as a "somber man, still holding traces of a distant aristocracy," has come to the island after many years of traveling the face of America…. [When] he first sets eyes on the island he decides he will make it his home.

This is not easy, for the island does not welcome strangers. The man who rules it—much as the rich old cattle baron traditionally rules the little Western town in the movies—is blind, aging Matt Tomlinson, boss of the fishing fleet and owner of the island's one store. Tomlinson has virtual power of life and death over the islanders, determining who shall work and who shall not….

How Rhodes battles the old man for the right to stay on the island—and incidentally to free the fishermen from his grip—makes up the body of this picturesque tale. One never gets very deep inside the characters, but their actions give a fair idea of the turmoil underneath.

Allen Ward, "Offshore Nepenthe," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 20, 1959, p. 50.

Florence Haxton Bullock

A little more than a year after the crusade achieved its major goals, John Ehle tells, in "Shepherd of the Streets," the dramatic story of the Episcopal rector who became the fighting voice of the Puerto Ricans in New York's shockingly overcrowded West Side, and won for them, through his bold assaults on the city's Health, Sanitation, Buildings and Police Departments, something approaching protection under the law….

Mr. Ehle based his fascinating story on close-ups of Father Gusweller at work and on the few statistics and sociological studies of the area which are available. It is an exciting, richly detailed portrait rather than a factual case history, with some of the pictures of the children and...

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John Cook Wyllie

["Lion on the Hearth"] is John Ehle's third novel, and like its emotionally charged predecessors (the North Carolina Negro story, "Move Over, Mountain," and the story of the wandering stranger in "Kingstree Island"), it may be put down as a succès d'estime.

The story is of a Gant-like, Asheville, N.C., family, which worries as much as it can, but the differences between "Look Homeward Angel" and "Lion on the Hearth" are more striking than the similarities. The title-character is once more a wandering stranger, who, like Tom Wolfe, tried to go home again, to succeed only years later in death. But the central character, a young lad named Kin, is the sensitive soul isolated in a hostile world,...

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Hal Borland

America has had a succession of frontiers, each in turn a challenge to hardy, ambitious men and a trial to their women, each leaving its marks on the American character. History can only tell us what happened and when, but fiction such as this splendid novel can show how and why. "The Land Breakers" is one of the best recreations of our pioneer past that we have had in years, honest and compassionate, rich and true.

[Mr. Ehle] has many skills. His story moves—even when it seems to pause for sights and sounds and smells that taunt the senses, even when it deals with herbal lore. He has a sure sense of drama; the tension never falters, whether the immediate action is Lacey Pollard's return, a bear...

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Edward Margolies

Related in the first person by a North Carolina University professor, [The Free Men] traces in detail the genesis, development, and outcome of the civil rights disorders that wracked "liberal" Chapel Hill in the years 1963–1964. Professor Ehle focuses his main attention on three youthful leaders (two whites and a Negro), but gives ample coverage as well to other participants, white and Negro…. In his effort to be fair to all, there is perhaps an inevitable lack of passion and conviction in Professor Ehle's account—and some doubt as to where he himself stands, although, by and large, his sympathies lie with the demonstrators and their objectives. He employs novelistic techniques—sometimes shuttling back...

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Thomas E. Porter

Chapel Hill, N.C., is the home of the most liberal university in the South. In 1963, a colored face in the classroom or cafeteria caused no stir. But on an early April morning of that year, two white students began to picket a segregated restaurant on the main street—and the community caught its breath. For the next two years, there was never total peace of mind for those of us who lived and studied in that pleasant college town.

In The Free Men, John Ehle has documented those years in Chapel Hill, focusing on the experiences of the two students, John Dunne and Pat Cusik, who led the civil rights movement there. He tells the story with remarkable objectivity, neither canonizing the liberals...

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Paul M. Gaston

What may lie ahead for Mississippi—and the civil rights movement as a whole—cannot easily be predicted, but John Ehle's superb book, "The Free Men," should be read thoughtfully for clues. Mr. Ehle tells the story of the virtually unreported civil rights turmoil that gripped Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1963 and 1964. Home of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is famed for its liberalism Southern style, and was an unlikely place for the events described by Mr. Ehle…. [When] a small group of young people, dissatisfied with the "tokenism" which they felt characterized Chapel Hill, launched a movement for total desegregation of all public facilities, the community was unable to cope. There were...

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Publishers Weekly

[The Road is a] long pastoral novel centered around the difficulties with nature and with people encountered in attempts to carve a railroad line around, over, and through a North Carolina mountain in the late 19th century. Weatherby Wright, the hero of the book, is a man driven by his dream of the economic and social advantages which completion of the railroad line will bring to his native mountain people, a dream strong enough to influence those around him…. The work is difficult, the book is long, and, unfortunately, the characters are not drawn sharply enough to interest the average reader. However, occasional passages show good insight into mountain people and their highly individual society.


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James Boatwright

["Time of Drums"] is a likable book—sober, honest, unpretentious for the most part—about a North Carolina colonel and his brigade during the Civil War, chiefly and climactically at the Battle of Gettysburg…. [It] should come as no surprise that [Mr. Ehle's] narrative has a certain sharpness and assurance about it. There's a wealth of rustic detail here, closely observed; a potentially arresting conflict between two brothers in love with the same girl; gory battle scenes; famous generals (Lee and Jackson in particular).

Ehle has Owen Wright, the colonel, tell his own story, for reasons Owen gives toward the end of the novel: "The notes about the war and my life in it I am writing for my children...

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Publishers Weekly

["The Journey of August King"] is a tender, moving, but wholly unsentimental story that comes across like a classic folk tale. The simple but engrossing story revolves around a pious 19th century North Carolina farmer (middle-aged) named August King and a 15-year-old runaway slave girl, Annalees Williamsburg…. King is a simple, unimaginative man, not adventuresome, yet something in him longs to help the girl and he continues to do so, even though he is becoming more and more frightened, especially after he meets the girl's brutal owner. Gradually, rumors build that he is helping her and the suspense mounts. While all this is going on, August is tormented by doubts about his motives: is he doing it because of a...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

Mr. Ehle always writes about the people of the North Carolina mountains in an unfussy style and with a sharp ear for local speech. His latest novel [The Journey of August King], set in the early nineteenth century, records the adventures of a law-abiding, grimly industrious farmer who, to his own bewilderment, risks his life and loses valuable property to help a runaway slave girl escape to the North. The work is notable for the contrast between the gentle tone of the narrative and the horrors it describes. A device which might have proved merely inappropriate actually creates a kind of eerie chiaroscuro.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in a review of "The Journey of August King,"...

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Saunders Redding

[John Ehle's Time of Drums] reminds me once again that one of the most talented of American regional novelists—and I do not use "regional" in a restrictive sense, but simply to indicate the author's concern with a particular region, which happens to be the South—has been shamefully and inexcusably neglected…. I know that this sounds exaggerated, but no living southern writer of whom I am aware has Mr. Ehle's sympathetic understanding of the "southern way of life" nor his deep and loving involvement in the people who live that life on either side of both the "color line" and the doctrinal line. His talents overwhelmingly support his emotional and intellectual commitment. His narrative skill, his projection...

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Publishers Weekly

["The Changing of the Guard" is a] thoroughly enjoyable novel, wry and witty, that really takes the reader out of himself and into the civilized world of banter and intrigue behind the scenes at the making of a perhaps great film. In Paris a famous film actor, his alcoholic actress wife who is making a comeback, an actress who is getting her first big break and a stinging, moody, deliberately insulting New Wave director are filming the last days of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette…. The personalities of the historical figures are emerging and begin to have a fascinating effect on the 20th century people who are telling and acting out their story. The touching drama of Louis and his 'Toinette moves us deeply even as we...

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Roderick Nordell

As long as writers have ideas like Mr. Ehle's, the often predicted demise of the novel will have to be postponed. No other narrative form has the flexibility to permit such plausible trickery as the feat he brings off so well [in "The Changing of the Guard"]: merging the offscreen lives of movie actors with their on-screen roles to a point of bizarre fusion.

Taken literally, these stereotyped Hollywood lives of adultery, alcohol, and power ploys do not have much to recommend the reading of them. But Mr. Ehle weaves them into a timely image of what has been happening to moviemaking at a time of change from romantic glamour to gross realism. There are implications for a broader range of cultural values...

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Sharon Wong

[In The Changing of the Guard] Richie Hall, a middle-aged English actor whose career and private life are on the decline, comes to Paris to star in a film based on the French Revolution. While Richie's egocentricity drives everyone around him wild, few realize how really insecure he is. Lamentable as the loss of youth may be, we are unmoved by this story. Reason: there is no propelling movement and even the writing is stagnant. Ehle frequently refers to actual celebrities in the attempt to create a realistic milieu. However this device fails because his characters have no substance of their own. The novel is on the whole a rather tiresome, humorless pastiche—a filmland fantasy that is lifeless and dull....

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Martin Levin

Although ["The Changing of the Guard"] is set in the present, its heart belongs to the sixties, when films were in ferment and directorial style was a heavy subject. Consider the plight of Richie Hall, a glossy international superstar who has come out of retirement from Beverly Hills to make a comeback picture in Paris. The script is something about the last days of Louis XVI and has been largely rewritten by the star himself; he sees it as a "vehicle" for his personality. But the director, a surly young brute arrogant with an auteur complex, has ideas that mingle naturalism with Grand Guignol. This is a conflict crying out for humor which is—sadly—an item in short supply here….


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Denise P. Donavin

[The Winter People is a] beautifully woven story about North Carolina mountain folk. Ehle has avoided caricature in creating the Wright and Campbell clans—two mountain families who live in warily peaceful deference without hiding the scorn and animosity that has permeated their relationship for years…. The novelist produces splendid dialogue, climactic adventure scenes (especially vivid is an account of a bear hunt), and dramatic tension that is carried to the final page.

Denise P. Donavin, in a review of "The Winter People," in Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1982 by the American Library Association), Vol....

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Jonathan Yardley

[John Ehle] has never quite managed to find the national audience he deserves.

In a just world, publication of The Winter People would rectify that; it is a lovely novel—quiet, forceful, serious but never solemn, old-fashioned in the best sense of the term. But this is not a just world, and there is simply no way of knowing whether Ehle will, with what is unquestionably his best book, at last be properly recognized. He is not a flashy writer, he deals with people and a place that may seem remote to many readers, he makes no gestures to literary fashion. He is merely good, which these days too often is not enough.

The Winter People is set in the mountains of North...

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Edmund Fuller

["The Winter People"] is a splendid story of the clannish, fiercely independent mountain people and a newcomer among them. The opening tone is ominous but shifts quickly into a sustained, joyous lyricism, with the quality of "lilt and sway" that the stranger, Wayland Jackson, finds in the speech of a young mountain woman, Collie Wright….

The cast is large, with memorably delineated personalities. Two compelling figures are the heads of the hostile clans…. The talk among all these people is extraordinarily rich, ranging from tones of rough humor and bawdiness to tenderness. Grimly threatening confrontations lead to hard negotiations that are like statecraft in miniature. No outside law is invoked;...

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Ivan Gold

"The Winter People" is drenched in local wit and custom…. It is also filled with vivid evocations of the mountains and surrounding terrain, and alive with rounded, nuanced characters who appear to exist beyond the novel's covers.

John Ehle … has staked a serious, quiet claim to this profoundly American territory.

Ivan Gold, "Mountain People," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1982, p. 13.

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