Everyone Has a Story to Tell
By Neal WootenSeptember 5, 2022
All my childhood memories of my mother, when she actually had time to sit and rest, are of her reading romance novels. She went through several every week, and still does to this day. I tried reading one when I was twelve. It embarrassed me so much, I haven’t read one since.
When I got older, I understood. It’s a book’s job to take us to new places, to let us feel what it’s like to be in another location, another time, another everything. Whatever you’re missing in real life, you can find in books.
Along that same time, I stumbled across a find that would aid me in that endeavor. At a flea market, I discovered a box set of H.G. Wells books. The man was asking two dollars, but luckily, I talked him down to a buck-fifty, which was all the money I owned in the world. It included classics like The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, Food of the Gods, and my favorite: The Time Machine. That’s probably why a lot of my early novels are sci-fi. People often need to escape their humdrum love lives; I needed to escape the planet.
By my mid-teens, I became hooked on non-fiction. There’s something about reading a thrilling memoir that a novel doesn’t provide, that little whisper in the back of your mind reminding you that this really happened. Those with a chilling criminal aspect were the best. When Hell Was in Session by Senator Jeremiah Denton rocked me to my core.
As I continued to crank out fiction, I was almost envious of writers who had life experiences worthy of putting to paper. I was in my mid-fifties and had published seventeen books before it dawned on me that I did have a story to tell. I just didn’t realize I was allowed. Throughout my entire childhood, there were two topics that were taboo, two subjects my parents said we could never speak about: our grandfather and what he had done, and our home life.
It’s amazing how the things we’re taught as kids stick with us forever. My grandfather has been dead for forty-three years and my dad has been gone for nineteen years, and I still feel like I’m breaking a sacred covenant by writing about them. But I also know that once my mom and I are gone, this story will be lost forever.
Hence, With the Devil’s Help was conceived. I totally ripped off the premise behind the title. When I was thirteen years old, I read a Conan the Barbarian graphic novel. A princess asks Conan to help her escape from a wizard. Reading between the lines, Conan let’s her know he will be expecting a “reward,” and he wasn’t referring to money. The princess thinks to herself, “I began to wonder if I had asked the devil to free me from a demon.” That awesome line has stuck with me for forty-three years.
As the blurb to my book suggests, my grandfather, Pete Wooten, was convicted of murder and sent to prison. But, as we say in the South, Pete didn’t cotton to prison life, so he decided to facilitate his own release a tad early. Apparently, as we would learn, the FBI kind of frowns on this. They knew my dad had helped and that was basically their only lead. So, throughout my childhood, we were followed, watched, and occasionally confronted.
This, too, I thought was normal. I often wondered if these same agents followed my friends and their families, or if my friends had their own agents.
And yes, the agents were right; Dad had helped Pete escape. So, am I saying my dad was the devil? Of course not. But my dad and granddad were two of the meanest men to come from the mountain. They were also the smartest, fastest, and strongest. It doesn’t make them the devil, but I’m sure the devil gives them a wide berth.
About With the Devil’s Help by Neal Wooten:
Neal Wooten grew up in a tiny community atop Sand Mountain, Alabama, where everyone was white and everyone was poor. Prohibition was still embraced. If you wanted alcohol, you had to drive to Georgia or ask the bootlegger sitting next to you in church. Tent revivals, snake handlers, and sacred harp music were the norm, and everyone was welcome as long as you weren’t Black, brown, gay, atheist, Muslim, a damn Yankee, or a Tennessee Vol fan.
The Wooten’s lived a secret existence in a shack in the woods with no running water, no insulation, and almost no electricity. Even the school bus and mail carrier wouldn’t go there. Neal’s family could hide where they were, but not what they were. They were poor white trash. Cops could see it. Teachers could see it. Everyone could see it.
Growing up, Neal was weaned on folklore legends of his grandfather—his quick wit, quick feet, and quick temper. He discovers how this volatile disposition led to a murder, a conviction, and ultimately to a daring prison escape and a closely guarded family secret.
Being followed by a black car with men in black suits was as normal to Neal as using an outhouse, carrying drinking water from a stream, and doing homework by the light of a kerosene lamp. And Neal’s father, having inherited the very same traits of his father, made sure the frigid mountain winters weren’t the most brutal thing his family faced.
Told from two perspectives, this story alternates between Neal’s life and his grandfather’s, culminating in a shocking revelation. Take a journey to the Deep South and learn what it’s like to be born on the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of a violent mental illness.