Because my husband J.L. and I had spent many happy days over in Western Carolina hiking trails and exploring the area, I decided to set one of my novels there. I decided on Maggie Valley for my primary setting—a quiet valley and resort town tucked up against the eastern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Maggie Valley is a small, peaceful mountain community not far from nearby Waynesville and Asheville. The Western Carolina area is also “apple country” and home to many apple orchards like Barber’s Orchard that we’d often visited outside of Waynesville. So I decided to create a family apple orchard as a part of my Maggie Valley story. I called the orchard the Cunningham Farm Apple Orchard and enjoyed many happy hours reading about orchard farming and just the right apple varieties for the orchard to grow.
As a psychology professor, I’d often listened to my students talk about the problems caused in their family units by difficult family members. Many shared, in our class discussions, about a single individual that made every family get-together a nightmare and who often had torn an otherwise healthy and happy family apart. I decided to explore this idea in this novel and created Estelle Cunningham, a harsh, dominant, and authoritarian woman, who ruled the roost in her family with a demanding and unkind hand. Estelle was John Cunningham’s mother. His legacy in inheriting his family orchard, which had been in his family for several generations, included his widowed mother. He and his sister Holly had grown up with their mother’s controlling and dominating ways, each finding their own ways to cope with her. But when John brought his new bride Lydia into the family, things didn’t go so well. Lydia, a warm, friendly, and loving woman kept trying over and over again to win over the love and respect of her new mother-in-law, but to no avail. As the children came and when John and Lydia moved into the big home after John’s father’s death, things only seemed to grow worse. When John and Lydia’s three boys began to enter their teens, they developed their own interests and ideas for their life—none to Estelle’s pleasing—as she expected them to stay and work the farm. Lydia came under more attack from Estelle at that time, also, for going to work to help with the family’s debts. …In a turning point, with Lydia’s unhappiness growing, she decides to separate from John and take a job offer in Atlanta. Not long after, with increased pressure from Estelle and their mother’s support gone, the boys move to Atlanta to live with their mother. Now as the story begins, Lydia has a fine job opportunity back at home in North Carolina. Estelle has passed away and Lydia decides to take the job to see if she can patch up her relationship with her only daughter. Her sons accuse her of going home to try to patch things up with John, too, but she denies it—even to herself.
The questions, of course, are: (1) Can Lydia and John reunite after all these years apart? (2) Are there still loving feelings remaining? (3) Can they work through the bitterness and anger they both hold about their relationship and the past? … And in addition, can their children—now grown—give up their old anger and resentments they’ve carried for so long? From these questions, you can see that one of the book’s central themes revolves around the hurtful past of this family and whether they can ever recover, forgive, and love one another again.
Side characters and side plots also play a marvelous part in this story. The farm staff members, who live and work at the Cunningham Farm and have always been like family, have their own lives and problems ongoing. Lydia’s daughter Mary Beth and her two twin sons had to come back home to the farm after Mary Beth’s husband deserted them. In addition, ongoing issues in her life with her husband thread throughout the story… along with fun, warm-hearted scenes with Mary Beth’s five-year old twin sons Bucky and Billy Ray. Readers will also enjoy meeting Lydia and John’s long-time friends Rebecca and Tolley Albright who are both cloggers—and who get Lydia and John back into clogging again, too. On a side note: Many national champion cloggers come from the Maggie Valley, North Carolina, area and the Stompin’ Ground theatre there still offers wonderful evenings of mountain clogging and music.
Along with the family dynamics in this story, problems with a ghost are troubling the valley and the Cunningham family. Several sightings of the ghost, and frightening scenes related to it, have happened all too close to the Cunningham Farm’s property. Speculation about the ghost are rampant—and of course there are mixed opinions as to whether it is a real ghost or someone posing as a ghost causing the problems. Before the book is out, some scary scenes unfold related to this elusive ghost until the mystery is finally solved. To further complicate matters, Mary Beth’s former husband, a troubled man, is causing problems for the family—leading to yet another menacing and suspenseful scene. You will not be bored with the events of this story in Welcome Back as one surprising event just seems to lead to another before the book finally ends.
I loved taking readers over to the Western Carolina area in this story … to scenes in downtown Waynesville, on hikes in the Cataloochee Valley, to nearby Balsam Mountain, and to visit the campus at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee where Lydia has taken her new job as career services director. To my joy, this book also was a finalist for the Selah Awards—a nice honor and a coveted one by authors of inspirational books. The Selahs are awarded annually by the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference for best books…. If you’ve missed reading Welcome Back, I hope you will look for it soon!
MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW: “Welcome Back is another terrific Smoky Mountain novel from the pen of Lin Stepp and continues to underscore her master of the genre and her impressive attention to character development and background detail.”
[Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act.]