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Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes from the Other Side of the Tracks

Daphne Athas

Eno Publishers
$16.95 paperback
6 x 9  
256 pages
35 black-and-white photos
Will Blythe, foreword
September 2010

Through the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, and other 20th-century milestones, Daphne Athas experienced life in the legendary Southern college town of Chapel Hill. The town was conventional and idiosyncratic, both caught up in racial and class prejudice and ahead of its time. None of this liminal world, nor the effects on it of larger political and cultural forces, escapes Athas’s keen writer’s eye.

Her personal life is woven through these essays. She writes of her friendships, her youthful adventures, her political revelations, her development as a writer. She retraces her early years in North Carolina, where she was considered an oddity. Hailing from a once-rich family that relocated from Brahmin Boston to a poor neighborhood on the edge of Chapel Hill after losing its fortune in the Depression, she was smart, sophisticated, well educated, and poor. That perspective from the “other side” of town sharpened her powers of observation, making her work penetrating and full of a sense of discovery.

Athas writes about her friendships and experiences with many well-known writers, among them Richard Wright, Paul Green, Betty Smith, and Max Steele. She tells of the political persecutions of Ab Abernathy (Chapel Hill bookseller) and Junius Scales (the scion of a wealthy family) during the McCarthy era. She reveals the true stories behind Chapel Hill’s haunted Gimghoul Castle and the murder of a 72-year-old coed. Her essays bring back to life a town making its way through a radically changing world.


"In her beguiling reverie, Daphne Athas reveals that though in the Great Depression and later, Chapel Hill was something less than "the Southern part of heaven," it was also something more. Admirers of her remarkable novel, Entering Ephesus, will treasure this book, while readers with no direct experience of Chapel Hill will be captivated by her tales of a phantasmagoric village of "lascivious trees" where Paul Green and Betty Smith dwell and, at any moment, Gertrude Stein or Ava Gardner might pop up." —William E. Leuchtenburg, American historian, author of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal and The FDR Years
"Daphne Athas is the Oracle of Delphi transmigrated to Chapel Hill, spying on past, present, and future. This book is steeped in history, myth, and famous personalities in the era of the important college town's transformation from genteel institution of higher learning into juggernaut of the New South's mighty technocracy. Athas snatches the veil off racism, classism, politics, andVanity Fair-worthy scandals that haunt. This skilled novelist has the digging power of an ace reporter or top-notch historian and the story-telling verve of a language wizard. Chapel Hill in Plain Sight is a book for all those interested in secrets hidden in plain view." —Randall Kenan, author, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead and A Visitation of Spirits
"A lovely and readable series of true stories that made me feel at once young and old, now and then, and very much there in a bygone Chapel Hill/Carrboro. These are tales with wry humor and real characters, many of whom Athas has cheerfully, matter-of-factly raised form the dead as though they were never gone at all." —Lydia Millet, author, Love in Infant Monkeys and How the Dead Dream
"A fascinating cast of murderers, millworkers, writers, and revolutionaries inhabit this riveting dissection of time, place, memory, and myth. Daphne Athas's steamrolling chronicle of the subversive and mostly forgotten history of the "Southern part of heaven" puts both people and institutions in context, and yet the most admirable of it's accomplishments is that it does so in wonder and respect. Every single syllable sings. This book speeds up to show us the need to slow down." —Michael F. Parker, author, Hello Down There and If You Want Me to Stay