Dear Appalachia: Appalachian Readings

Continuing my 2018 resolution to read more books about Appalachia, I chose Dear Appalachia: Readers, Identity, and Popular Fiction since 1878 by Emily Satterwhite for February.

In Dear Appalachia, Satterwhite looks at reader responses to popular Appalachian regional fiction from the late 1800s to present day. I’ll admit, I haven’t read all the books Satterwhite discusses, but I’ve read a fair number, and two of my favorites are in there: Coal Tattoo by Silas House and Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani.

While the book covers a lot, I found myself drawn to certain themes as I read. Two of the major ones for me were (1) insiders versus outsiders and (2) race and the idea of Appalachia as a white utopia.

Inside or Outside

It was fascinating to see the various reader reactions from Appalachian insiders, outsiders, and insiders who moved away (Jesse Donaldson and I would both be in the latter category). As a native who no longer lives in the region, I tend to react one of two ways to Appalachian literature: either it makes me homesick because it is a fair representation or it makes me angry because it is full of stereotypes. It seems others who are intimately familiar with Appalachia react similarly.

Appalachia has always had a strong dichotomy between locals and outsiders, partially because outsiders have come in time and again to take advantage of the hospitality of mountain folks and the natural resources the landscape holds. They’ve taken our coal, our lumber, our money, and they’ve left us with flattened mountains and dirty water.

The outsider readers saw what they wanted in the books Satterwhite examined: an isolated mountain utopia with close neighbors who were simultaneously hard-working farmers capable of living off the land. They saw the region as somehow more authentic than the US as a whole. In fact, many outsider readers assumed these tales of simple mountain life were biographical documentaries. They chose to see the “imagined geography of Appalachia” (184) as true to life, whether there was proof of that or not (and in some cases the authors weren’t even Appalachian themselves, but outsiders who had visited the area). Many readers simultaneously admired our mountain toughness and self-sufficiency and also wanted to come “save” us from our primitive ways. (Read Ann Pancake’s essay “Tough,” if you haven’t.)

Satterwhite explains that the timing of the popularity of this genre was tied to growing industrialization and the great migration known as the Southern Diaspora. White Americans generally felt displaced, across the country, and they saw Appalachia as a safe, calm, grounded homeland (and many with ties to the area from previous generations, mentioned so, in a claiming sort of way, in their letters to the authors: “My own ancestors were among those early settlers” [111]). Satterwhite writes, “Migration provoked among white Americans a sense of deep estrangement that they turned to fiction to ameliorate” (214–215). They wanted to belong, they “craved a way to understand their relationships to the seemingly atomizing mass culture that newly surrounded them” (118), and this fictional, romanticized version of Appalachia was perfect to them. Many readers actually visited the region as tourists, trying to find the real places that the fictionalized towns were based on, and were disappointed that they were not as imagined. However, as one reader astutely wrote regarding The Dollmaker, “We all have our ‘Detroits’ and we all long for the security of the old Tipton Place . . . but, the Old Tipton Place . . . does not exist for any of us” (123).

Race and Utopia

Unfortunately, the white-washed assumptions many outsider readers had regarding Appalachia as a long-lost home or respite sometimes also showed an endorsement of “racism, nationalism, and imperialism” (221). They saw Appalachia as old-world white, with ballads, traditions, and dialect. Also, if these readers could rewrite their roots as oppressed Appalachians, then they would be incapable of then being the oppressors. These readers valued Appalachia for it’s “purity” and “racial innocence” while also identifying with the “not-quite-white” rough and tumble mountaineers (219). The blandness of their national white culture was essentially tempered, in Appalachia, by the Cherokee, the Melungeons, the Celtic (220).

(It should be mentioned that many nationalities who came in to work in coal, lumber, and railroads were rarely mentioned in the novels, much less the letters: Italians, Polish, African Americans, and many more. Coal camps, in reality, were melting pots of culture. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. has a memoir about his experiences growing up in a coal camp that I highly recommend: Colored People.)

This sense of utopia (hopefully not racialized) happens for insiders who have moved away, too, as shown in On Homesickness and in my own life. We idealize what we had. Within the concept of Appalachia, my childhood has become a place—one that I’ve compacted into beautiful, nostalgic memories, one that I can never physically visit.

The Geography of Hope

The reality of the situation is that I left, as many others have in southern migrations, for opportunities—for school, for jobs—that my hometown could not provide for me. Yes, my hometown is small, and a lot of people know each other. But it is also rural and cannot easily sustain my goals. Like Jesse Donaldson, I think often of moving back, of the sound of the Bobwhite and the whistle of the train, but what would that mean? I can’t return to my idyllic mountain childhood, so what would the region become for me? Could the beauty of the landscape and the proximity to family cancel out the lack of jobs and the tension of prolific political views antithetical to my own? Like Gertie in The Dollmaker, what must I sacrifice in order to return?

As Wallace Stegner writes in “Wilderness Letter,” “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

As I contemplate my homesickness and the reality of the region, one important takeaway I have from Dear Appalachia is this: “We owe it to the region and to our organizing efforts to see Appalachia in a more complicated way, and to notice when celebrating it risks doing more harm than good” (217).

What reading resolutions do you have this year? Share them (and any recommendations) with us using the hashtag #IEreads.

(This is reposted from Rachel’s personal blog.)

On Homesickness: Appalachian Readings

A resolution of mine for 2018 is to read more books about Appalachia. I was an Appalachian studies minor back in the day at Berea College, and my writing and, honestly, my identity are wrapped up in the region.

Because I do best with goals, I decided to read one book on Appalachia each month. For January, I chose On Homesickness by Jesse Donaldson.

This book hit me on several levels even before I cracked open the cover.

  1. I am constantly homesick for the mountains of East Tennessee and often fantasize about returning to that area and escaping southern Indiana.
  2. I miss my four years in Kentucky at Berea College.
  3. This book was published by WVU Press, which is where I truly cut my editorial teeth. It was my first job working on books (prior to that, I worked on Appalachian Heritage, a literary journal out of Berea).

I started the book with high expectations, and it did not disappoint. Here’s how WVU describes it:

One day, Jesse Donaldson wakes up in Portland, Oregon, and asks his wife to uproot their life together and move to his native Kentucky. As he searches for the reason behind this sudden urge, Donaldson examines both the place where he was born and the life he’s building.

The result is a hybrid—part memoir, part meditation on nostalgia, part catalog of Kentucky history and myth. Organized according to Kentucky geography, with one passage for each of the commonwealth’s 120 counties, On Homesickness examines whether we can ever return to the places we’ve called home.

On Homesickness is beautiful—both in design and in prose. Each section is opposite the image of a Kentucky county, in the order the counties were formed. The text itself winds through the history of Kentucky, the history of the author, and the invisible string tying the two together. More than once, I felt that the author carefully, uncannily shaped my emotions into words.

It’s hard to live outside the region you love. And I think it is extra hard when it comes to Appalachia. We mountain folk are known for our tie to place. The earth literally grounds us. The hills and hollers have been our horizon since birth. Kathleen Stewart, in A Space on the Side of the Road, linked this connection (sometimes a manacle) to memory. The places and things on our homesteads hold our memories. Leaving them means leaving our history, our ancestors, and our identity. It took generations to scrap a living out of those hills—and those hills became a part of us.

And so it is with Jesse Donaldson, who finds himself across the country, away from his roots. And truly, what plant can survive that far from its roots?

As I read, I found each section to be rich, something to be savored and ruminated on. I had to pause after a dozen or so to catch my breath and let my mind play with all the threads I’d discovered. Over and over, his words cut at the core of how I feel here in Indiana. I love my life here, but “why does one patch of woods feel like home when another doesn’t?” (115), Donaldson asks. All I can do is nod. I may live in Indiana, but it will never be home.

And yet my husband is here. Is from here. What would it do to rip him from his roots and attempt a replanting in the red clay of Appalachia? Would he feel as I do now? Speaking of his own spouse, Donaldson writes, “A place can’t love me. Not like you” (127). The pull between the now and then, the you and me, the here and there is palpable.

In his vignettes, Donaldson deftly expresses his experiences with homesickness, and somehow mine as well. I was an outsider in many ways as a child; does the distance make my need to belong to Appalachia more real? Would I be as preoccupied with the region if I still lived there? Or does the refraction of hundreds of miles make things rosier than they would be if I moved back?

“I am trapped somewhere on a bridge between the Kentucky of my mind (an idealized past) and the Kentucky I no longer know (some troubled present).” (139)

I highly recommend this book for the beauty of its prose and the clarity with which it examines the concept of home and roots and family.

The Beauty Spot, Unaka Mountain. Photo by Rachel Rosolina.

What reading resolutions do you have this year? Share them (and any recommendations) with us using the hashtag #IEreads.

(This is reposted from Rachel’s personal blog.)

Children’s Literature: From Instruction to Entertainment

Last Monday, I was fortunate enough to see part of the children’s literature collection at the Lilly Library here in Bloomington. The Lilly has an amazing collection of rare books, and it’s always fun to see the treasures they bring out for various events. This particular session was all about the evolution of literature for children who were seen as tiny adults needing life instruction to children who wanted to be entertained.

The earliest examples laid out for us were horn books with the alphabet on one side and key words like doghousehorse on the other. One mother even made instructional flash cards about the dangers of life.

As we got into the later examples of the literature—moving from straight instruction to entertainment—we were shown books like this Newberry edition of Mother Goose and this tiny boxed library set of stories.

My favorites, however, were seeing items like Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit.

And the absolute best was seeing the original manuscript for Peter Pan. What a treat!

If you ever find yourself in Bloomington, Indiana, definitely stop by the Lilly! Not only will they be able to show you amazing gems from their collection, but you’ll learn a lot too.

And Then the Murders Began

Yesterday, on Facebook, we posted a link to an article from the Hook about replacing the second sentence of any piece of writing with “And then the murders began.” It’s genius and works with nearly everything. It’s our new favorite game.

Still life with a skull and medical book. Oil painting by an Italian painter, 1766. Iconographic Collections via


A Wrinkle In Time: “It was a dark and stormy night. And then the murders began.”

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. And then the murders began.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the riverbank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’ And then the murders began.”

Go Tell It on the Mountain: “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. And then the murders began.”

Madeline: “In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. And then the murders began.”

It even works with nonfiction:

The Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And then the murders began.”

“Trump Tells G.O.P. It’s Now or Never, Demanding House Vote on Health Bill” (New York Times): “President Trump issued an ultimatum on Thursday to recalcitrant Republicans to fall in line behind a broad health insurance overhaul or see their opportunity to repeal the Affordable Care Act vanish, demanding a Friday vote on a bill that appeared to lack a majority to pass. And then the murders began.”

The Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And then the murders began.”

How does this game work with your favorite books? Share them with us!

Women of Words

As a women-owned small business, we at Inkblot consider International Women’s Day important. Yesterday, on Facebook, we posted a link about an Ohio bookstore that turned around all fiction written by males. The visual was stunning. The bookstore’s owner, Harriett Logan, told Heat Street that the display was “a metaphor of silencing the male voice—at least for this month.”

Women writers have shaped both of us here at Inkblot. One of my first posts on this blog was about Madeleine L’Engle. She changed how I approached both fiction and nonfiction, voice, structure—everything about writing. For Lesley, it is Harriette Arnow, the author of The Dollmaker. She was the first writer to show Lesley that you can transport your reader into a world completely foreign to her and capture her heart, soul, and mind.

Today, we metaphorically join the Ohio bookstore in highlighting ten of our favorite women writers. How many authors from this far-from-complete list have you checked out?

To all you women writers out there who have been silenced in one way or another: Keep writing, keep speaking, keep making a difference. We believe in you.

Here are some resources specifically for women writers:

Literary grants for women from Women Arts

Summer resources for women writers from Writing Women’s Lives Academy

Publishing opportunities for women from VIDA, Women in Literary Arts

Happy International Women’s Day!

Vacation Reading

Over Christmas, my husband and I joined my parents in South Carolina for a holiday vacation. Of course the top item on my to-do list prior to leaving was picking out a suitable book to read. I settled on an old favorite: A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt.

This may not seem like a laid-back beach read; after all, it’s about a seven-year-old boy whose mother abandons him. Yet, this book opens itself up and invites you into the story—pain and all—for a grounded experience that’s hard to walk away from. This is a book you choose when you have the time to read all day.

It is a solid novel with a wide range of emotions and deep characters, some of whom you’ll like, some of whom you won’t, and most of whom you’ll change your mind about. If you like the Tillerman family from other books in this series, you’ll be happy to see them reappear in this title as well.

One thing I didn’t consider when choosing this book was the setting. I read about Jeff waiting on his mother to pick him up from the Charleston airport while waiting on my mother to pick us up from the Charleston airport. I read about his island of safe space, with its crabs and herons, while sitting on a beach I’ve grown up visiting. I could literally taste the salt on the South Carolina breeze as I read the words.

For all the deliberation in front of my bookshelf the night before our flight, I picked right.

What did you read over the holiday?

Stay tuned this week for the first Inkblot writing challenge of 2017! It’s one we’re really excited about!


Thank You, Veterans!

Today, the United States remembers and thanks all veterans who have served this country. For those of us who have not served, memoirs are stirring and sobering first-person accounts of war. We’ve selected a few titles as recommended reading.

Though not a memoir, this collection of accounts is just as important, as it has been a neglected subject:

As we head into this weekend after a hard week, try to see the stories within the strangers around you.

Korean War veterans attend a Veterans Day ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial. This year's ceremony was dedicated to America's Nisei, second-generation, U.S.-born Japanese-American soldiers who served during World War II in the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. The ceremony signaled the opening of a special exhibit aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial honoring the service and bravery of America's Nisei soldiers. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Diana Quinlan/Released)
Korean War veterans attend a Veterans Day ceremony aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial. The 2013 ceremony was dedicated to America’s Nisei, second-generation, U.S.-born Japanese-American soldiers who served during World War II in the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service, and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. The ceremony signaled the opening of a special exhibit aboard the Battleship Missouri Memorial honoring the service and bravery of America’s Nisei soldiers. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Diana Quinlan/Released)

The Sound of Productivity

When working alone at home, in an office, or even in a coffee shop, sometimes you need a little white noise (that you can control the volume of) to help you concentrate.

Researchers Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu, and Amar Cheema write in their article “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition” that “a moderate . . . level of ambient noise enhances performance on creative tasks.” I know from experience that while I can’t edit with lyrics on, I also have a hard time focusing if the office is dead quiet. The in-between—the space for creative productivity—is ambient sound or white noise.

via Sound Effects HD Indie Studios
via Sound Effects HD Indie Studios

Here are some of our favorite sources to help you concentrate:

  • Noisli: This site, and the accompanying app, allows you to combine various sounds at different volumes. To work, I use a combination of rain, storm, leaves, and a tiny bit of coffee shop. To sleep, because I use this app nearly every night as well, I use rain, wind, leaves, and river.
  • Listen to Wikipedia: Experience Wikipedia with your ears! For every user added or piece of content edited, you hear a tone. The more users who sign up at once, the bigger the musical swell. The bigger the content edit, the deeper the tone. It’s fascinating and soothing.
  • Hipstersound: Here you hear a variety of coffee shop noises to keep the sound of silence at bay. One awesome option with this site is that you can listen to a Parisian cafe. Working to French mumblings is somehow comforting and energizing.

If you prefer actual music, but lyrics break your concentration, try these playlists on Spotify:

Hopefully these options give you a bit of relaxation and focus during your work!

Muir of the Mountains

John Muir 1902
John Muir ca. 1902 via Wikipedia

Yesterday was the 100th birthday of the National Park Service. Hooray! One of the OG activists for national parks was none other than John Muir. This prolific adventurer wrote hundreds of articles and dozens of books about the natural world. He also cofounded the Sierra Club in 1892. All of this work helped the US recognize the beauty within our borders and the need to preserve it.

To celebrate this centennial, we want to share a few of Muir’s moving words, which literally saved mountains. Continue reading “Muir of the Mountains”

Literary Nonsense


I learned about a new genre today: literary nonsense. And yes, it is as awesome as it sounds. Essentially this genre mixes reality with nonsensical conventions, language, or even reasoning. The immediate example is, of course, “Jabberwocky” and its home, the beloved Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll. In fact, all of the Alice in Wonderland books are literary nonsense.

According to Michael Heyman and Kevin Shortsleeve (what a name!), literary nonsense is an amalgamation of nursery rhymes like “Hey Diddle, Diddle” that were often published in the mid- to late-eighteenth century as “nonsense verses” and the genre of parody and satire. In fact, since the 1600s, the word nonsense changed from meaning “no sense” to the current meaning of “absurd.” Heyman and Shortsleeve say that the most often used term for this genre, literary nonsense, doesn’t quite convey the fullness of the genre. They prefer nonsense literature or, even better, literwordsy absurdifusion. I tend to agree.

Milo and Tock
Milo and Tock

A favorite of mine in this genre is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. This book takes the playfulness of Alice and Wonderland and, following Carroll’s lead, subverts the literal. Once Milo, the main character, drives through the magic tollbooth that appeared in his bedroom, he finds places like the Island of Conclusions (which you can only get to by jumping) and people like Rhyme and Reason. The Guardian even said, “The Phantom Tollbooth is the closest thing we have to a modern Alice in Wonderland.”

The Little Prince
The Little Prince

The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is another gem often considered to be part of this nonsense. Its beginning clues us in to not take reality at face value, as the narrator shows us a picture of what grown-ups would consider a hat. To the narrator, however, it is clearly an elephant inside a boa constrictor. (Silly grown-ups.) Shortly thereafter, we meet a prince who lives alone on his small planet with only his rose to keep him company. He travels from planet to planet, each populated by a single person, usually boring adults. It is a lovely, sad tale. And, like the other books I’ve mentioned in this genre, The Little Prince is known for its simple, but poignant illustrations.

Each of these books has a way of capturing the grotesque absurdity of childhood and turning it into a nostalgic masterpiece. Childhood is a scary and wonderful time when everything is new and the rules of the world don’t always apply.

Here’s to a nonsensical Thursday! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!