The WBUR Read-In: High water in Appalachia

WBUR arts and culture fellow Lauren Williams recommends three books about the history of the Appalachia region. (Courtesy of the book publishers)
WBUR arts and culture fellow Lauren Williams recommends three books about the history of the Appalachia region. (Courtesy of the book publishers)

This past weekend, deadly flash floods rolled through Eastern Kentucky. The floods were record-breaking, devastating homes and schools. The current death toll as of Tuesday was 37 and climbing. Hundreds remain unaccounted for. According to Appalachian Voices, a grassroots organization that advocates for clean energy, mountaintop removal is one of the main causes of more extreme flooding. They explain, “Before coal companies remove a mountaintop, they strip the land of vegetation. Without trees on steep mountain slopes, rainfall can quickly accumulate to dangerous levels.”

A friend of mine who lives in Kentucky sent me a powerful essay by Mandi Fugate Sheffel, the owner of a local bookstore. The author pointed out that Appalshop, originally called the Appalachian Film Workshop, has lost years of archives. Appalachia is a place that often gets painted with stereotypes in broad strokes, but its history is rich, and it ties to all of us. The Appalshop played a large role in documenting that, partnering with the community to produce films detailing the region and archival research. “Is that what we have become, a place on the map that time and water can erase? With these documents gone, how will our children know the importance of who we are and what we have overcome?” Sheffel asks.

More constant flooding means more destruction not only to livelihoods but to the history of the region that’s already disregarded at best and at worst, misconstrued. This week, in honor of remembering those who have lost so much to the devastating floods, I have recommendations for a few reads that tie to Appalachia.

'Appalachian Reckoning'

Edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll

This book was written in response to the memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance, which came under critique for its lazy stereotyping of the region. It’s filled with texts, essays and poetry describing Appalachia from the people who live and work in the region. The book is broken up into two sections: “Considering Hillbilly Elegy” and “Beyond Hillbilly Elegy.” In a particularly searing essay, Ivy Brashear writes, “We’ve cleaned up the messes and environmental disasters left by extraction companies, and the artificial messes corporations tried to make between races… Maybe someday our complex stories will overpower the simpler, false narratives about our place.” The book, though, goes way beyond Vance. It’s an essential read in understanding the region’s relationship to the rest of the country, the media, and the mythology we’ve assigned to it.

'The Harlan Renaissance'

By William H. Turner

Written by one of the foremost documentarians of Appalachian studies, “The Harlan Renaissance” details the vibrant Black communities of Eastern Kentucky. It details the lives of people who lived on the margins of wider American culture in every sense of the word, separate from white America and separate from white Appalachia. The sociological memoir is as warm as it is educational. For example, this linguistic breakdown: “The word 'stuff,' in the South of the United States at least — refers to a wide range of things… it can be used in sentences and statements ranging from the imperative to the declarative… for an exclamation or for exclamatory functions.” It’s filled with tales of home, history and understanding.

'The Prettiest Star'

By Carter Sickels

This novel was a major award winner in 2020 and for good reason. The story takes place in 1986 and follows a young man named Brian who has been diagnosed with AIDS. He’s from the Appalachian region of Ohio but moved to New York looking to start over. Knowing that he doesn’t have much time left, he returns to his hometown. The book is a moving portrait of the AIDS crisis in rural America.

Additional Reading:


Lauren Williams Arts Editor
Lauren Williams is an editor at WBUR.



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