Finding Little Bethel

By Billy Liggett, Editor of Campbell Magazine
Photos by Hannah Hunsinger, Lydia Huth, Billy Liggett & The Paul Green Foundation

The shade of giant oaks and the breeze that gently rustles the cornfields offer a respite from the mid-day summer heat for E. Bert Wallace, who sits on a wooden bench — leather satchel at his side, laptop on his knees — soaking in his surroundings. The rural silence is broken only by the whine of cicadas or the occasional hum of a passing motorist.

A two-lane paved farm road separates Wallace from the church. Towering above the peaked stalks is a century-old Gothic revival structure, Parkers Grove Methodist, a building that — like the nearby town of Linden — is well past its prime. The steeple no longer stands straight. The white paint is giving way to rot.

Yet, even today, it’s glorious. Inspiring.

Wallace effortlessly drifts back in time to early 20th Century North Carolina and imagines what life was like where the Cape Fear and Little rivers meet, where a young, observant boy named Paul Green overcame the cultural deprivation of the rural South to become one of America’s most distinguished authors and playwrights. Tapping away on a keyboard that doesn’t belong in this scene, Wallace has entered Green’s mind.

This Body The Earth, Green’s 1935 novel about poor white tenant farmers and former slaves in the post-Reconstruction South trying to eke out an existence on often unforgiving land, paints a similar scene. The church; the corn, cotton and tobacco fields; the rivers; Linden, Erwin and Buies Creek — they may all have different names in the book, but Green’s descriptions … they’re what he’s known.

This is Little Bethel, North Carolina. This is the home of Alvin Barnes, our tragic hero. His hearth the earth, his hall the azure dome.

Wallace, pausing a moment to dab the sweat from his brow as a passing tractor interrupts his train of thought, has set out to adapt Green’s epic novel for the stage. He’s here to experience old Harnett County and to introduce its famous son — the pride of Campbell University — to a new generation.