“I reckon there’s nothing awkwarder in the world than the sight of two women in long dresses at either end of a crosscut saw.” – Robert Morgan
When I move to a new area, or get a hankering to immerse myself in a culture, or to smell the air of a region, I turn to literature. Fiction, through characters and a well-woven story, can drop you in the middle of a place and allow you to witness, without recourse or requirement of participation, its particular brand of drama, to feel its weather, to listen to its dialect. Likewise, a well-written nonfiction piece can confirm fiction’s characterizations and give you a glimpse into the real life struggles of a place and its people.
When we moved to Maine, and to Minnesota, I devoured fiction about those areas to help acquaint me with their history and flavor, and now that we live in Virginia, I’ve been reading literature set in these hills to dig deeper into the culture of our new home. Here are some of the titles I’ve read, and some I haven’t, if you’re ever feeling the need to walk the green forests or hear the mountain twang of Appalachia.
Wish You Well by David Baldacci – Set in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, Wish You Well is fiction that pulls from Baldacci’s childhood experiences in that region. It is an account of a 1940s family whose lives are isolated from any world off the mountain, who do not earn money to provide for themselves, but who work the land to survive. Baldacci nailed the dialect – he wrote it masterfully, so that you can hear the characters’ speech, without the dialect being distracting or tiring. And he captured a way of life on the mountain that most of us will never know. Somehow, though, there wasn’t enough depth for me. Or maybe complexity. I can’t pinpoint what it was that had my mind wandering at times, or that kept me from getting truly engaged, but Wish You Well is worth a shot if you want to disappear into the mountains for a while, and particularly if you are interested in the coal mining issues currently going on in the Appalachians (blowing up the mountains to empty them of their coal and then abandon them, piles of rubble, barren and stripped of life).
Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia by Dennis Covington – This was a fascinating nonfiction read about the culture of snake handling Pentacostalists in Southern Appalachia. The author, a reporter for the New York Times, originally approached the story as a journalist covering an attempted murder trial. A snake handling preacher was convicted of putting a gun to his wife’s head and forcing her to reach her hand into a rattlesnake cage, where she was then bitten. The author covered the story, but was captivated by the snake handlers’ culture, and as he got deeper into their stories while simultaneously tracing his own family’s roots, he became part of the story himself. He writes their faith beautifully and convincingly, but as time progressed, he also began to see the handlers’ too human faults and hypocrisies. I enjoyed the book immensely – I think I read it in two days – but I am not sure if the author had put enough space between himself and his experience with the handlers before he finished the book. He still seemed lost at the end, which left me somewhat unsatisfied.
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – It has been a while since I’ve read this one, but I have read it multiple times because Kingsolver captures the depth and richness of Appalachian wilderness in a sensuous, deeply respectful way that resonates with me. It doesn’t hurt that Luna moths, a favorite creature of mine, play a role in Prodigal Summer as well. But since I have not read the book recently enough to summarize it here, I will give you an abbreviated synopsis from Publishers Weekly: A beguiling departure for Kingsolver, who generally tackles social themes with trenchantly serious messages, this sentimental but honest novel exhibits a talent for fiction lighter in mood and tone than The Poisonwood Bible and her previous works. There is also a new emphasis on the natural world, described in sensuous language and precise detail… A corner of southern Appalachia serves as the setting for the stories of three intertwined lives… Deanna Wolfe is a 40-plus wildlife biologist and staunch defender of coyotes, which have recently extended their range into Appalachia. Wyoming rancher Eddie Bondo also invades her territory, on a bounty hunt to kill the same nest of coyotes that Deanna is protecting. Their passionate but seemingly ill-fated affair takes place in summertime and mirrors “the eroticism of fecund woods” and “the season of extravagant procreation.” Meanwhile, in the chapters called “Moth Love,” newly married entomologist Lusa Maluf Landowski is left a widow on her husband’s farm with five envious sisters-in-law, crushing debts, and a desperate and brilliant idea. Crusty old farmer Garnett Walker (“Old Chestnuts”) learns to respect his archenemy, who crusades for organic farming and opposes Garnett’s use of pesticides… Readers will be seduced by her effortless prose, her subtle use of Appalachian patois. They’ll also respond to the sympathy with which she reflects the difficult lives of people struggling on the hard edge of poverty while tied intimately to the natural world and engaged an elemental search for dignity and human connection.
Gap Creek and The Truest Pleasure, by Robert Morgan – I finished my second reading of Gap Creek this summer, and now I want to read The Truest Pleasure again as well. Like Baldacci’s Wish You Well, Gap Creek explores the rawness of life in the Appalachians. In Gap Creek, the novel from which the introductory quote to this blog post was taken, protagonist Julie Harmon moves down the mountain from her family’s home, where she did the hard labor after her father’s death, to a home in the valley with her new husband. There, she works harder than ever, navigating a new marriage, butchering hogs, collecting chestnuts from up the mountain when they had no other food to eat, and birthing her baby alone on the kitchen floor. The first time I read Gap Creek was before we had children, and the childbirth scene was one I carried with me through labor, delivery, and to this day. Morgan’s is the truest account of childbirth, from the laboring mother’s perspective, that I have ever read. Likewise, his prose took me into the grease fire, the flooding creek, and the way of life of a hard-working, no-money, living off the land existence that I have not seen since Little House on the Prairie. Only Morgan’s story is a grittier one, told from the perspective of an adult instead of a child.
Like Gap Creek, The Truest Pleasure also takes place in the western mountains of North Carolina. It has been a few years since I’ve read it, and honestly, given the stoic nature of the husband in it, I remember it feeling more Midwestern than Appalachian. But what sticks with me about The Truest Pleasure is that the protagonist, Ginny, is a Pentacostalist who speaks in tongues, to the shame of her husband. I remember that Morgan did a brilliant job of putting the reader inside Ginny’s head, and like Covington with Salvation on Sand Mountain, Morgan writes the Pentacostalist’s faith beautifully and convincingly, allowing an outsider like myself to understand the power of Ginny’s convictions and the bliss of her salvation.
Big Stone Gap series by Adriana Trigiani – Unlike every other book on this list, the Big Stone Gap series is a fun, beach or poolside, race through the story and the characters type of read. In other words, chick lit. While there are certainly tensions and conflict, the overall memory I have of these books is that they were lighthearted and I loved the characters. I’m pretty sure I read the entire series like a chain smoker smokes cigarettes, lighting the beginning of one off the end of another, in the space of a couple of weeks. But since it has been a while, I will again give the Publishers Weekly synopsis: Trigiani’s story of a middle-aged spinster finding love and a sense of self in a small Virginia coal town is a lot like a cold soda on a hot summer day: light and refreshing, if just a little too sweet. Trigiani, a playwright, filmmaker and former writer for The Cosby Show, has a Southern voice that perfectly embodies her main character, the embattled Ave Maria Mulligan. Ave Maria, who’s satisfied if not exactly happy in her role as the town pharmacist, begins questioning her quiet, country life after a posthumous letter from her mother reveals a jarring secret. Ave Maria soon faces a crisis of identity, the advances of a surprising suitor and the threat of her acerbic, money-grubbing Aunt Alice. From the suitor, who points out his brand-new pickup truck during a marriage proposal, to the town temptress, who dispenses romantic advice from her bookmobile, Trigiani brings the story alive with her flexible vocal inventions. Fans of true love stories and happy endings certainly won’t be disappointed.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls – Another excellent nonfiction read, The Glass Castle begins:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
Who can resist a first line like that? The Glass Castle was so captivating, so well written, and so true, it turned me into a life-long fan of memoir. It has been several years since I read The Glass Castle, but I recommend it to anyone who is reluctant to try nonfiction. Here is an abbreviated Amazon.com synopsis: Jeannette Walls grew up with parents whose ideals and stubborn nonconformity were both their curse and their salvation… When the money ran out, or the romance of the wandering life faded, the Walls retreated to the dismal West Virginia mining town—and the family—Rex Walls had done everything he could to escape. He drank. He stole the grocery money and disappeared for days. As the dysfunction of the family escalated, Jeannette and her brother and sisters had to fend for themselves, supporting one another as they weathered their parents’ betrayals and, finally, found the resources and will to leave home… What is so astonishing about Jeannette Walls is not just that she had the guts and tenacity and intelligence to get out, but that she describes her parents with such deep affection and generosity. Hers is a story of triumph against all odds, but also a tender, moving tale of unconditional love in a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fiery determination to carve out a successful life on her own terms… For two decades, Jeannette Walls hid her roots. Now she tells her own story. A regular contributor to MSNBC.com, she lives in New York and Long Island and is married to the writer John Taylor.
I’m Appalachianed out for now, but I’ve got a list for when I’m ready for more mountain fiction. Bucknell University in Pennsylvania once offered an Appalachian Literature course, for which the professor posted a book (and movie) list online. Here are some of the titles for further reading: