Read Your Way Through Appalachia

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Credit…Raphaelle Macaron

Appalachia is a region and a mind-set. Our devotion to our place belies the fact that we’re hard to pin down on a map: a swath of highlands crossing parts of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and the coal country of Kentucky and West Virginia, plus a smidgen of Pennsylvania and points north. State lines make little sense here; we have more in common with other mountain communities than with the far ends of our states and their capitals. Appalachia has few large cities, our economies are land-based and, unless you live here, we’re probably not what you think.

For starters, outsiders call it “Appal-AY-sha,” a mispronunciation that hurts our ears. It’s “Appal-achia.” As in, “If you keep that up, I’ll throw this apple atcha.” But in fact, we won’t. We tend toward heart-blessing kindness in the way of small-town folks who rely on each other in good times and bad, and live together regardless. We love our families to death, and laugh at ourselves. As one of the nation’s last strongholds of small family farms, we’re likely to measure time by the planting seasons. We make things: gardens, quilts, music and, above all, stories, in a vernacular all our own with its lexical ties to working class Anglo-Irish and the King James Bible. It adds up to a literature as bracing and complex as a tumbling mountain creek.

What should I read before I pack my bags?

Weighing in at nearly three pounds, “Writing Appalachia: An Anthology,” edited by Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd, is too big to pack but too wonderful to miss. It serves up the region’s iconic talents — James Still, Jesse Stuart and Harriette Simpson Arnow, to name a few — in appetizer sized portions to tempt a reader to go find their longer works. (And you should, especially Arnow’s The Dollmaker.”) But the comprehensive sweep of this collection begins with Native American oral traditions, enslaved people’s narratives, and work songs, then moves through 20th-century classics into a modern chorus of queer and straight, white, Black and Indigenous voices. For any reader who needs it, this book will put away the stereotype of Appalachians as a dull monoculture.

Another good starting point is Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia,” a readable social history that offers a rare understanding of land-based economies, and how cultural rootedness has been penalized by global development. Stoll explains Appalachia’s poverty and “otherness” not as the failing of mountain people, but as a fate perpetrated on them by centuries of extractive industries and urban presumptions of success. A reader may be impressed by how cannily Appalachians have survived anyway.

What books or authors should I bring along with me?

If you only have room for slim books in your suitcase, bring the poets, who connect our past and present through the sound of spoken language. When I read Maurice Manning’s pointed modern debates with God (whom he calls “Boss”) in “Bucolics,” I can hear James Wright’s high school football players, four generations back, aching with empty prospects as they “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” in “The Branch Will Not Break.” To simultaneously pray, curse and laugh at our bleak history is sublimely Appalachian, and nobody ever nailed it quite like Jim Wayne Miller; start with “The Brier Poems.”

Frank X Walker’s “Affrilachia,” published in 2000, first gave a name to the Black Appalachian experience, a poetic tradition further enriched by Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks and Crystal Wilkinson, among many others. On my shelves of Appalachian poetry, women slightly outnumber the men. To name one, George Ella Lyon has written at least three poems I’ve put on a list to be read at my funeral. So has Wendell Berry. (Somebody else will have to pare down that list.) Berry’s northern Kentucky farm is not quite in Appalachia, but no writer speaks better for our agrarian spirit and character. Under the quiet surface of such novels as “Hannah Coulter” and “Jayber Crow” lies a reckoning as subversive as his “Mad Farmer” manifestoes. But since we’re still discussing poetry, read “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems.”

Really, though, you should make room for fiction. It would be hard to find a better distillation of Appalachia than Silas House’s first three novels: Clay’s Quilt,” “A Parchment of Leaves” and “The Coal Tattoo.” The prolific House is also a poet, a playwright and Kentucky’s current — and first openly gay — poet laureate.

My own search for a writerly voice first found purchase in the territory between Lee Smith’s mountain women in “Fair and Tender Ladies” and the twelve heart-stopping stories Breece D’J Pancake left us from his short life. And like every artist I know around here, I’ve been shaped by the polemics of a place where big capital runs up hard against mortal human labor. Denise Giardina’s “Storming Heaven” and Ann Pancake’s “Strange as This Weather Has Been” cover a century of that story in West Virginia’s coal camps. The Cherokee writer Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, in Even as We Breathe,” takes a different look back at the historical collision of Indigenous communities and moneyed privilege in North Carolina. Adding to these accounts of caste and class, Rahul Mehta’s short story collection “Quarantine” layers in the complexities of growing up queer and South Asian in West Virginia. Running through all these books is a current of attachment — to family, place and impossible duty — that makes them Appalachian.

What literary pilgrimage destinations would you recommend?

Hindman Settlement School, in Hindman, Ky., was founded in 1902 as an educational experiment in a hollow that could only be reached by mule. Its work carries on to this day through readings, concerts and creative support of local arts traditions. In nearby Whitesburg, Appalshop’s media arts center holds valuable archives and produces theater, music and spoken-word recordings, telling local stories that too often go untold by commercial media. Both Appalshop and Hindman School suffered catastrophic damage in last summer’s floods, and, with characteristic resilience, both have given and received enormous community support as they work to recover.

In one of Appalachia’s few cities, Asheville, N.C., you can visit Thomas Wolfe’s grave or his sprawling childhood home, a boardinghouse run by his mother. Residents and neighbors who found themselves in his novel “Look Homeward, Angel” were sufficiently peeved to get it banned from local libraries. In nearly a century since, it has never gone out of print.

Not far from Asheville, lifting its 6,000-foot peak above the Pisgah National Forest, is the inspiration for Charles Frazier’s historical novel of exile and longing, Cold Mountain.” Visitors can approach it on foot or via the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway.

What books give a sense of the nature of the place?

If you haven’t come here to climb a mountain, you haven’t come. The Appalachian Range runs from Alabama to Newfoundland, extending far north and south of culturally defined Appalachia. But here in the high middle, we know these ancient mountains have made us the people we are, while also providing a home to some of the richest biodiversity on the continent. The Appalachian Trail is the full immersion, but casual hikers can find plenty to explore, from the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Parks to Grandfather Mountain, New River and dozens of other state parks. Most offer trail maps and field guides to slip into your pack.

In the evening, by lamplight, Scott Weidensaul’s “Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians” will help you absorb the wonders around you. Or enjoy “A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia,” edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street. Calling to mind an earlier era of naturalists, before science and poetry divorced, this guide introduces trees, birds, insects and more, each with a hand-drawn illustration and a poem written in its honor, showcasing dozens of the region’sartists. Where else are you going to find an ode to the Eastern Hellbender?

If I can’t visit, what books could take me there instead?

Every author mentioned here will paint pictures in your mind, but these two have done the painting for you.

Depictions of farm life have a tiresome tendency to romanticize or condescend, but Arwen Donahue’s “Landings: A Crooked Creek Farm Year,” does neither. Her prose and ink-watercolor images celebrate the full measure of her family’s connection to their land as they labor to make ends meet, while remembering to honor the oriole’s song and the occasional need for a swim in the cold creek.

Suzanne Stryk, a visual artist with a scientist’s eye, crossed her home state to chart Virginia’s natural and cultural ecology in “The Middle of Somewhere.” The book also includes the Coastal and Piedmont regions, but Stryk’s home and heart are in Southwest Virginia, and she celebrates our mountains as the center of their own universe.

For anyone tempted to think of this rambling rural domain as the middle of nowhere, our writers make a case that Appalachia is somewhere, all right. For plenty of us, it’s everything.

Barbara Kingsolver’s Appalachia Reading List

  • “Writing Appalachia: An Anthology,” edited by Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd

  • “The Dollmaker,” Harriette Simpson Arnow

  • “Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia,” Steven Stoll

  • “Bucolics,” Maurice Manning

  • “The Branch Will Not Break,” James Wright

  • “The Brier Poems,” Jim Wayne Miller

  • “Affrilachia,” Frank X Walker

  • Poetry by Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks, Crystal Wilkinson and George Ella Lyon

  • “Hannah Coulter,” “Jayber Crow,” “The Mad Farmer Poems” and “This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems,” Wendell Berry

  • “Clay’s Quilt,” “A Parchment of Leaves” and “The Coal Tattoo,” Silas House

  • “Fair and Tender Ladies,” Lee Smith

  • “The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake,” Breece D’J Pancake

  • “Storming Heaven,” Denise Giardina

  • “Strange as This Weather Has Been,” Ann Pancake

  • “Even as We Breathe,” Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

  • “Quarantine,” Rahul Mehta

  • “Look Homeward, Angel,” Thomas Wolfe

  • “Cold Mountain,” Charles Frazier

  • “Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians,” Scott Weidensaul

  • “A Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia,” edited by Rose McLarney and Laura-Gray Street

  • “Landings: A Crooked Creek Farm Year,” Arwen Donahue

  • “The Middle of Somewhere,” Suzanne Stryk

Barbara Kingsolver is the author of 17 works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her most recent novel, “Demon Copperhead,” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. She lives on a farm in Appalachian Virginia.

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