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.)