Thoughts on Sense of Place in “Controlled Burn” by Charles Dodd White

Sense of place as the notion of collective identity is an important undertone in much Appalachian literature, and the story “Controlled Burn” by Charles Dodd White represents this in subtle yet powerful ways. Dodd White conveys this through inner dialogue and shared events. Dodd White has a distinct way of portraying group place with a tight sentence structure that conveys attitude (disgust, anger, concern) as well as emotion (fear, hatred, longing.)

The story centers on a situation where a collection of weapons and ammunition have been found in the mountains of western North Carolina near the former home now hunting cabin of Dayton and son, Tommy. Even though no one lives on the land anymore, Dodd White uses dialogue and particular diction to explain the importance of place:

  • I need your help, is all. There’s a controlled burn being laid down up on Parson’s Den. If we don’t do something, your Grandaddy’s cabin won’t make it.

(Dodd White 24)

Dayton is saying that a piece of his family and heritage is in danger of not surviving into the future and that his son has an inherent obligation to go with him to protect it. The tone is that they are guarding not just a house on a mountain, but an innocent member of the family who can’t care for themselves any longer. Additionally, he speaks in the ‘native tongue’ when he says “being laid down” to explain what is going to occur but by employing the unique word choice, the special relationship of family and land are imparted.

Dodd White criticizes the lack of respect for the land by some men while communicating the character’s bond to place when the controlled burn is in full bloom on the mountain, and he has no recourse to stop it:

  • I stared at the burn, wondering how a man could put a spark on all that, how we had let it happen. I don’t know exactly why I kept watching, why I didn’t let Tommy take me home. But I wanted to drive the pain of it through my eyes and into my brain. Bury it there like a hot needle. (Dodd White 31)

Dayton proceeds to lament events in his life (death of his wife, lack of grandchildren, estrangement from his son) mentioned earlier in the piece as the reason this was happening so close to home.

  • Looking at Tommy I could see it, as plain as plyboard: a space between the two of us had grown up that no matter of talking or sitting would ever change.

(Dodd White 29)

Not caring about your own often leads to poor awareness of others as this passage indicates. The language is distinct and regional with words such as ‘plyboard’ and ‘no matter of talking’ capitalizing on the shared history of dialect to explain the breach between him and his son. If there had been more vigilance, would the danger have been averted and this threat non-existent?

Dayton gives the fire the capability of doing more than its usual destruction. He assigns it the role of creating a painful, permanent memory making it one he won’t forget soon. The reader is left to wonder if it serves as a call to action or is a symbolism of defeat for Dayton. The image of the hot needle in the brain is severe and lasting. With “Controlled Burn,” Dodd White is declaring that everyone has a responsibility to care for and preserve land for future generations. The burn so close to the place of family origin is also symbolic of letting go of something from one’s past that is non-essential.

In her book Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing, Jessica Page Morrell mentions the potent impact of incorporating “man-made geography” into a story:

  • Use the influences of humankind on geography to lend authenticity to stories set in a real or famous locale. (Morrell 153)

Dodd White employs this tool about a man-made event having an influence on an actual place in western North Carolina where the mountains can be safe yet wild at the same time.


Works Cited

Dodd White, Charles. “Controlled Burn.” Sinners of Sanction County: Stories. Huron, OH: Bottom Dog, 2011. 7-18

Morrell, Jessica Page. Between the Lines, Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2006.