Riding on Comets is the true story of an only child growing up in a working-class family during the 1950s and ‘60s.
As the family storyteller, Cat Pleska whispers and shouts about her life growing up around savvy, strong women and hard-working, hard-drinking men. Unlike many family stories set within Appalachia, this story provides an uncommon glimpse into this region: not coal, but an aluminum plant; not hollers, but small-town America; not hillbillies, but a hard-working family with traditional values.
From the dinner table, to the back porch, to the sprawling countryside, Cat Pleska reveals the sometimes tender, sometimes frightening education of a child who listens at the knees of these giants. She mimics and learns every nuance, every rhythm—how they laugh, smoke, cuss, fight, love, and tell stories—as she unwittingly prepares to carry their tales forward, their words and actions forever etched in her mind. And finally, she discovers a life story of her own.
Chapter 1 No Salt
Chapter 2 Trick or Treat
Chapter 3 A Tone
Chapter 4 Give Me My Hat
Chapter 5 Big Earl’s
Chapter 6 A Brush with the Law
Chapter 7 In Mommaw’s Kitchen
Chapter 8 What We Called Home
Chapter 9 From a Time Before
Chapter 10 Night Light
Chapter 11 Cicada Buzz
Chapter 12 I Spy
Chapter 13 Shelter
Chapter 14 Back Home
Chapter 15 Devil Faces
Chapter 16 Something Gathers ‘Round Me
Chapter 17 House of Leaves
Chapter 18 Plunder
Chapter 19 Alarm Clock
Chapter 20 My Civic Duty
Chapter 21 The Nervous Hospital
Chapter 22 My Kingdom for a Horse
Chapter 23 Night on Cheat Mountain I
Chapter 24 Night on Cheat Mountain II
Chapter 25 CarniVAL
Chapter 26 War
Chapter 27 The Sailor man
Chapter 28 In the Cellar
Chapter 29 Reckoning
Chapter 30 Exception to the Rule
Chapter 31 Charmed
Chapter 32 I’ve Drawed up a Mite
Chapter 33 900 Degrees Celsius
Chapter 34 Twin Haloes
Chapter 35 The Phone Rings
Chapter 36 Attention K-Mart Shoppers! Do the Dead Wear Underwear?
Chapter 37 We Shall Gather
Chapter 38 Riding on Comets
Chapter 39 Night on Cheat Mountain III
Chapter 40 Fall
Chapter 41 Liminal
Chapter 42 Dragon’s Tale
Cat Pleska is a seventh generation West Virginian, and she is a writer, editor, educator, publisher, and storyteller. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. She is an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and a book reviewer for the Charleston Gazette. She coedited the anthology Fed from the Blade: Tales and Poems from the Mountains. Pleska has been published in literary magazines and newspapers throughout the Appalachian region. She lives in Scott Depot, West Virginia, with her husband, Dan, one dog, four cats, and with a daughter, Katie, in nearby St. Albans.
“In voice, in person, on the radio, on the page, Cat Pleska has for years been one of my favorite writers. I carry the rhythms of her honeyed voice inside me. I have felt the reassurance of her grandmother’s lap on the night-porch, listening to the thump of maternal heartbeats that made Cat feel safe then and forever, and I’ve been gripped by her father’s hands, less reliable but just as beloved, driving like crazy down Cheat Mountain. Cat herself stands fearless wherever she is among the grownups, the way only a greatly loved child can stand, alone on the front seat of the truck, curious to see roosters fighting while her grandpa goes inside at the bootlegger’s. I’ve tagged along after her mother (who made her bed tight enough to bounce a dime off) and her aunt as they circle the old family homestead, remembering their own childhoods. Never patronizing or pathologizing, always with compassion, knowing that her amazing, enduring, flawed family gave her the gift of unconditional belonging, Cat Pleska tells the story of her people with steady awareness of their hardships and foibles, their greatness of heart, and the smoking or alcohol that killed some of them, cut off in the midst of their stories while their inheritor, Cat, listens and faithfully records their voices for herself, for them, and for us. I could read this writer’s words forever, and still want more."
Diana Hume George, author of The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America
"The gifts of Cat Pleska’s Riding on Comets are many: it is fresh, candid, gently humorous, tautly lyrical, and deeply moving.Cat Pleska writes masterfully and movingly about herself, her West Virginia home, and her colorful kin. But the greatest pleasure in reading Riding on Comets is that Pleska’s prose refuses to stay on the page. Rather, it insists on being read aloud and filling the room with its rich rhythms, resonances, syntax, and family diction. Cat Pleska is a natural, graceful, spellbinding storyteller."
Lisa Knopp, What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte
“Cat Pleska’s memoir of a childhood lived among the ‘giants’ of her West Virginia family is by turns humorous, touching, and achingly beautiful. This is a storyteller who knows how to piece together shards of story into a brilliant mosaic of a life. A joy to read.”
Janice Gary is the author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, winner of two Silver 2014 Nautilus Awards and a 2014 Eric Hoffer Prize for Memoir.
“Riding on Comets is not only a personal memoir, it is the story of a family embedded in West Virginia for many generations. . . .Cat Pleska’s restrained but graceful prose allows us to witness four generations through the eyes of the author, first as a child and then through the years that followed as her people live, age, and die. The details Pleska offers have the immediacy of truths well told, with a resolute eye and spacious heart, neither shying away from family and personal dysfunction, nor sentimentalizing the bonds of fear and love that held her family together.”
Geoffrey Cameron Fuller is an author of the true crime Pretty Little Killers and the crime thriller Full Bone Moon
“This compelling memoir illumines a challenging childhood rooted in the town and countryside of West Virginia. It is an identifiably Appalachian life insightfully revealing a broader view of the region than stereotypes portray. It is, as well, pervaded with a razor-sharp honesty that brings heartfelt empathy to both the sweet and the wicked. I could not stop cheering for this spunky little girl who becomes a spirited and resourceful woman, a woman who never gives up on herself or those she loves.”
Marc Harshman, Poet Laureate of West Virginia and children’s book author
“Cat Pleska is a natural storyteller, a storied child. Growing up in West Virginia in the ‘50s and ‘60s, her life was steeped in family stories, and she was the one entrusted to retell them. Her own memories and experiences of small-town Appalachia deepen this candid and compelling coming-of-age memoir, and she captures our hearts in the process.”
Laura Treacy Bentley, author of The Silver Tattoo and Lake Effect
“Image by image, each unquestionably whole and mysterious. . . . Those images—her grandmother offering a ‘slice of apple from the edge of her knife,’ the ‘curing tobacco leaves hanging in bunches from the ceilings wooden beams’ in a long abandoned house, or her ‘Dad leaning over [her] mother's pristine, white enamel kitchen sink and throwing up blood’—tenderly sear themselves into both Cat’s heart and the reader’s. All these images reflect, compound, and resonate with one another until they carry us forward like a leaf swirling in the October wind.”
Chris Green, Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, Berea College
“Cat Pleska’s memoir seamlessly moves through moments in time to discover that her story is her family’s story of struggle and forgiveness against the backdrop of her native West Virginia mountains. Like stars that become constellations if we know how to look at them, this fine and engaging book shows us how to find and read the stories of our lives.”
Rob Merritt, author of The Language of Longing
“Sometimes comedic, sometimes heart wrenching . . . Cat Pleska writes with the graceful succinctness of a poet—whether she’s describing a bike ride home ‘pedaling fast against the dark’ or just listening to the peepers ‘calling out for someone to love them.’”
Cheryl Ware, author of Flea Circus Summer, Catty-Cornered, Venola in Love, Venola the Vegetarian, and Robert Price Has Head Lice