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.)

When I Was Young in the Mountains

When I Was Young in the MountainsEvery once in a while, as a child, you encounter a book that becomes part of your own narrative. When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant was one such book for me. It details the daily life of a girl growing up in the Appalachian Mountains—she tells of her days spent swimming in the muddy swimming hole, attending church in the one-room schoolhouse, eating fried okra at her grandmother’s table, and sitting on the porch swing with her family. The repetition of the title phrase, the gentle illustrations, and the careful details make the book the reading equivalent of comfort food.

Appalachia is a complex region not short on hardships. Even in the narrator’s idyllic remembering, we see that the children are being raised by their grandparents and that the grandfather must mine coal for a living. For centuries, outside companies have taken advantage of the rich coal, timber, and other natural resources without also appreciating and investing in the people and the culture. Even in the media, Appalachians are often portrayed as backward and poor, when in actuality, we are a tough people abundant in family and tradition. We may not have a booming economy, but we have carved out lives on the sides of wild mountains among the galax and the ginseng. We have passed down music and stories that otherwise would have been lost to the past. We are rooted.

Cynthia Rylant and illustrator Diane Goode capture the Appalachia I know and love in a simple and beautiful way with a softened glow that comes from passing time. Now that I no longer live in Appalachia, reading this book allows me an escape back to my mountains, even if just for a few moments.

What children’s books have become part of your childhood memories?