The Appalachians: America’s First And Last Frontier, edited by Mari-Lynn Evans, Robert Santelli, and Holly George-Warren
I have noticed something very striking recently in reading a lot of books about Appalachia, and that is the way that writers on Appalachia feel it necessary to signal that they come from Appalachia when writing about the area. Even those who are outsiders feel it necessary to demonstrate their fondness for the region and its people and its culture as a whole, which indicates a great deal of prickliness on the part of the intended audience, or at least the perception of such, by those who seek to write about the region. That is not to say that this sort of need to demonstrate one’s bona fides as a friend of the region or a son or daughter of the region necessarily make for great writing. This is not a bad book, and many of the essays in it are quite good, but there are a few corrupt politicians who write here seeking to bolster their reputations by feigning a friendship with the region and its well being while mainly looking out for their own and naming everything in their states after them, as is the case with the late Senator Byrd of West Virginia. This is a book that reminds us that a great deal of Appalachia’s suffering results from its supposed friends and not only its open enemies and exploiters.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into four parts with numerous shorter essays. The book begins with a preface, introduction, and editor’s note before looking at how Appalachia was America’s first frontier (I), with essays about the land, landscape, forest, diverse ethnic mixture, Scot-Irish population, Civil War, and storytelling. After that there are several essays that look at feuds, coal, white lightning, and the region’s founding role in country music (II), including a couple of essays that look specifically at the Carter family. There are then some essays that deal with the boom and bust economy of the region (III), with essays on hillbillies, a couple of corrupt West Virginia pols writing about their lives, and the way that the decline of the coal business led to an exodus out of the region to other cities, like Akron. Finally, the book ends with a series of essays that look at the memories of Appalachian people (IV), including stories, mountaintop removal, fighting for one’s home, preaching to chickens, dealing with the region’s religious diversity, the picture man, what makes one a bit quare in the region, as well as the isolation of the area, after which there is an afterword, a note on contributors, acknowledgements, index, and some information about the editors.
What does one get out of a book like this? For one, Appalachia and its people have been immensely important and are far more complex than the region is often given credit for. There is clearly also a chip on the shoulder that the book reveals about the region, whether one deals with the coal business or the music business. The tension between a desire for success and a feeling that certain endeavors were themselves unrighteous has tended to hinder some of the region’s more creative people, even as the region itself has been hindered by the power of corrupt Democratic pols, some of whom felt bold enough to write about themselves as if they viewed themselves as one of the common people who (rather foolishly) continued to vote for them over and over again. The book does allude to politics, but has a notable Democrat bias, which is perhaps not the best idea for a book that is written as a companion to a series paid for by taxpayer money. There should be a law against using taxpayer money to fund partisan books like this one, if there isn’t one already, and I would be fond of seeing that law rigorously enforced.