From the outset, Jennifer McGaha’s memoir, Flat Broke with Two Goats, is a no-frills amble through backyard animal husbandry, soap-making, and living with less (like, a lot less). But at its heart, the Pushcart Prize-nominated book is better described as a rediscovery of home. “The book is about my Appalachian roots,” says McGaha, a Western North Carolina native who grew up outside of Brevard. “I want readers to walk away with a sense of the people who came before me — those folks who gave me strength during these hard times.”
Released on January 21, Flat Broke with Two Goats follows McGaha and her husband, David, as they navigate a financial stalemate — more than $100,000 owed in back taxes in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. Living hand to mouth, they foreclose on their suburban domicile and move to a 100-year-old rat- and copperhead-infested cabin in Pisgah Forest, where they begin raising goats. It’s only then, with barn animals in their boiler room and $4.57 in the bank, that they regain sight of their true values and the land-based lifestyle that long defined their ancestors.
But that revelation isn’t without heartache. “The whole saga unfolded in jerky sobs, in starts and stops and half-formed thoughts,” McGaha writes, describing the moment when her husband, a local accountant, divulged the details of their finances. Over the years, as a full-time mother of three and then a busy adjunct English professor, McGaha left the bookkeeping to her husband. “I both heard him and didn’t hear him. What he was saying was not real. It was a dream.”
It’s the first of many breathless moments. In fact, it could be said that dogged honesty is the thematic engine of McGaha’s memoir, especially when it comes to kinship. Asked how her 27-year marriage has since changed, she says to Bold Life, “All relationships go through hard things. This has been our hard thing.”
McGaha pauses and then laughs. “It’s funny. I did a reading the other night and I said something about my husband. All of sudden, this lady shouts, ‘What? You’re still together!?’ Well, yeah. That’s the point. Marriage is a big part of what it means to be at home.”
There’s that word again: home. From cover to cover, readers witness McGaha’s definition of home evolve. After abandoning her large Cape Cod-style property, home becomes more of a feeling than a place — a raw, intuitive knowing that the mountains are where she belongs. That she is, as she writes, “Appalachian in a bone-deep sort of way.”
Acceptance follows that realization. Even if several chapters are rightfully spent brooding over the cabin’s rotting floors and unfit drinking water, McGaha begins to make the best of it. (Their youngest son, Eli, then a high-school senior, takes the move in stride.)
Inspired by her late grandmother’s stories of farm life, she decides to try her hand at homesteading. “I had a vague yet definite sense that living closer to the land, raising our own vegetables and farm animals, would bring me healing,” she writes. “Not just spotty, episodic moments of happiness, but something deeper and more lasting.”
Speaking later, she adds: “I have always wanted goats. The old house even bumped up to farmland, but we lived on a dead-end street and there was an ordinance against farm animals. But, then again, I never saw myself making soap or cheese.”
And so, rather patently, she and David began a journey in land-based living, first with laying hens — all named after bluegrass and country singers — and later with goats. Together, as documented in McGaha’s writings, they nurse ailing chickens, make crockpot soap (yes, soap not soup), and coax fecund goats in the breeding process. They mourn when Waylon, their sophomore buck, falls ill; they also tear up when their Nigerian dwarf goat, Ama, births two doelings. At many points, like when McGaha is cooling yogurt or turning an unborn kid, the book’s tone strays toward a how-to text on homesteading. Each chapter even concludes with a recipe (e.g. spicy crockpot chicken, prenatal piña coladas, taco soup). “Food is just a central part of homemaking,” McGaha notes.
But dig deeper, and you sense that the book is not just about goats, even if the title suggests otherwise.
“Living much like my grandparents and great grandparents did growing up has made me realize how rapid the cultural shift has been here in WNC. Only two generations separate me from the true homesteading life,” says McGaha. “The change has been so quick, I often wonder what has been lost.”
Flat Broke with Two Goats, a memoir published after McGaha’s first year in Vermont College’s creative writing MFA program, suggests losses in self-sufficiency. But its great gains are family, community, and, at this writing, eight more goats.
Today, Jennifer McGaha teaches upper-level English at Carolina Day School. She and David still live in the cabin in Pisgah Forest. She reads from her book on Saturday, February 3, 3pm, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, before heading to the Rose Glen Literary Festival in Sevierville, Tenn. Check www.jennifermcgaha.com for more info.