At Home in the Heart of Appalachia by John O'brienAt Home in the Heart of Appalachia by John O'brien

At Home in the Heart of Appalachia

byJohn O'brien

Paperback | September 17, 2002

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John O’Brien was raised in Philadelphia by an Appalachian father who fled the mountains to escape crippling poverty and family tragedy. Years later, with a wife and two kids of his own, the son moved back into those mountains in an attempt to understand both himself and the father from whom he’d become estranged.

At once a poignant memoir and a tribute to America's most misunderstood region, At Home in the Heart of Appalachia describes a lush land of voluptuous summers, woodsmoke winters, and breathtaking autumns and springs. John O'Brien sees through the myths about Appalachia to its people and the mountain culture that has sustained them. And he takes to task naïve missionaries and rapacious industrialists who are the real source of much of the region's woe as well as its lingering hillbilly stereotypes. Finally, and profoundly, he comes to terms with the atavistic demons that haunt the relations between Appalachian fathers and sons.
John O’Brien has held writing fellowships at the University of Iowa and Stanford University, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His work has appeared in Hudson Review, Massachusetts Review, TriQuarterly, Country Journal, Harrowsmith, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. This is his first book. He lives wi...
Title:At Home in the Heart of AppalachiaFormat:PaperbackPublished:September 17, 2002Publisher:Knopf Doubleday Publishing GroupLanguage:English

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ISBN - 10:0385721390

ISBN - 13:9780385721394

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Read from the Book

From Chapter 1My Father Takes Me Home August 1952 On this sweltering day, I'm sitting on the front steps of our house on Greenway Avenue, in southwest Philadelphia. Through the screen door behind me, I hear my two brothers and two sisters complain about the heat. We have spent the afternoon filling paper bags with clothing, picking ripe tomatoes from the garden down the block, checking doors and windows, and scrubbing up. As soon as my father comes home from work, we will leave for Piedmont. I have filled buckets of water for Richard and Lady-my father's prized rabbit hounds that will stay here in the alley-and now all that's left to do is wait for him. Beyond the curb, the blacktop has become as soft as fudge. Up and down Greenway Avenue the oven-hot air shimmers, turning the colored girls jumping double Dutch into a wavering mirage. Waiting has always been hard for me, but waiting for my father is the hardest. At last he rounds the corner by Mazy's closet-sized grocery store, brown lunch bag in one hand and that tattered, oil-stained cap perched on top of his curly red hair. Once brown, the cap has faded into beige. He does not want a new cap; he brought this one from Piedmont when he moved to the city. As always, when he thinks he is alone and unseen, he frowns and stares into the middle distance-a worried man. No one in the world walks like him; each foot flares out wide to either side, ducklike. My father is a sailor on a ship at sea. Jumping up I shout, "It's him," and everyone flies around- double-checking windows and doors, turning the water off, unscrewing fuses. After one last look at Lady and Richard we stampede to the old box-turtle Plymouth. Inside the car, my younger brother David begins a litany of good-bye. It's "Good-bye, house, good-bye, porch, good-bye, Beauty"-the striped cat on the porch-"good-bye, Richard, good-bye . . ." Then older brother Patrick snaps, "Shut up, you idjit." And the first in-car fight begins. "You're not the boss of this car." "Oh yeah? Well I'm older and that means . . ." In the front seat, my father clears his throat and says, "Listen up once." I see his pale blue eyes in the rearview mirror. My father is a gentle, soft-spoken man, but when his voice takes an edge, we listen. He says, "We're gonna start this trip friends and end this trip friends. Right?" "Right!" we all shout, but my brothers glare at each other. The peace restored, my father goes through a series of small physical adjustments. He squares his shoulders, adjusts and readjusts his cap, shifts around to find a perfect position in the seat. When everything seems in order, he places a hand on the dashboard, then lowers his head like a priest whispering a prayer. I'm not sure, but he could well be praying. Our old Plymouth is a fourth-hand car, and making it all the way to Piedmont is not certain. At last, he slaps the dashboard and starts the engine. Pulling away from the curb, he shouts, "Off like a dirty shirt!" On the road after dark, we play buzz, a math game he has taught us. Then he leads us in song: "Good Night, Irene," "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." We all sing loudly and happily like campers around a fire, but at odd, mismatched moments I hear only my father's voice. He means it when he sings, that's the difference. There is something sad about the way he holds long notes. At times, even happy songs seem touched with melancholy. Passing through small Pennsylvania towns, we children fall asleep on top of one another like a litter of kittens. I momentarily wake up when my father toots the horn to say, "West, by God, Virginia," as we cross into the state. Hours later, sensing the loss of motion, we all wake up and untangle. Gaping and yawning, we tumble out into the dark town. Across the street from my grandmother's house, a door opens and light pours out. A woman in padded housecoat and hair rollers-at least this is how she appears in memory-calls to a small dog down the block. She does not seem to notice us in the dark. David, who is not quite awake, thinks Grandmother O'Brien is calling him. He runs across the street and through the open door while the woman stands gasping as a perfect stranger rushes in: the O'Briens have come back home. Both sides of my family, the O'Briens and the Bells, came from this small town. Piedmont, which means foot of the mountain in French, is a paper-mill town on the banks of the Potomac River in northeastern West Virginia. The mountains crowd in tight and houses sit at strange angles on impossibly steep hills. (The cobblestone street on which my Grandmother O'Brien lives is so steep, it occasionally appears as an escalator in my dreams.) Train tracks split Piedmont down the middle. Long lines of open cars, loaded down with coal from the southern part of the state, rumble through town at odd hours of the day and night. Across the Potomac, in Luke, Maryland, the stupendous chimneys of the world's largest paper mill, Westvaco, spew out yellow sulfide smoke. When it rains in Piedmont, the water turns to mild acid that eats the paint from cars and homes. The rank smell has worked its way into furniture, rugs, clothing, pet fur, and women's hair. God knows what it does to human lungs. When I was a boy, the river was dishwater gray. Below the mill, all of the native fish had died and so had the vegetation along the water's edge. On some days, the Potomac smoldered acid fog and the smell of rotten eggs was overwhelming. My relatives worked at the mill. Each weekday morning my grandparents, aunts, and uncles drove across the metal bridge to work their shift and then drove back home at night. Families paid their bills, fed their children, and kept their homes in good repair. On summer evenings after work, couples sat on porch swings to take the cool night air. In the fall men like my Grandfather Bell and my Uncle Jimmy-a legendary outdoorsman-hunted the woods and fished the streams that were unaffected by the mill's runoff. On Saturday nights beer joints filled up and on Sunday mornings so did the churches. Women like my Grandmother Bell, who was tall and handsome, walked to church in their finery. Their husbands, scrubbed free of the week's mill grime, wore their "go to meet'n" suits and escorted them, walking on the curbside as chivalry required. The high point of the social year was the mill picnic-one day for white people and another for black. My relatives, like most residents, thought Piedmont was special, a good place to live. Concerning the ever-present smell, Grandfather Bell quoted old Mr. Luke, part-owner of the mill, who always said, "It smells like money to me." My grandfather invariably chuckled when he said this. My own feelings about the mill, even as a boy, were more ambivalent. It was true, most of my relatives worked there, and on some level, I understood how important that was. But my Grandmother O'Brien stacked paper all day long and came home with razor-thin cuts on both hands. To ward off infection, she soaked them in hot bleach water each night. I can remember seeing her at the kitchen table, hands suspended above a steaming dishpan. The treatments were painful, and Grandmother had to master herself each night. After holding her hands above the pan for half a minute, she closed her eyes, then slowly let her hands sink. A wince of pain was replaced by an expression of acceptance that made me think of saints on holy cards. In my mind, the mill was like purgatory: terrible things happened there. That vision aside, I have pleasant memories from those Piedmont visits-kitchens crowded with relatives, uncles dropping into a boxer's stance by way of greeting, the sense of being related to half the town. Grandmother Bell had a refrigerator on the back porch filled with small bottles of Coke-"pop," she called it. She kept a wooden bowl on the kitchen table filled with fresh fruit and told us to help ourselves; this was opulence beyond imagination. We spent long afternoons at the town swimming pool a few blocks from the Bells' house, and I dreamed about this all through winter. One of my uncles had a small dog that did wonderful tricks on the sidewalk beside the Bells' house. As I recall, it was a small pug-faced dog that would sit, shake hands, roll over, and play dead on command. The dog's big trick, the "piece of resistance," was to sit on its haunches wearing spectacles with a toy smoking pipe in its mouth. With a flourish my uncle would say, "Winston Churchill!" On every visit, Grandfather Bell told me the same joke: "Oncet there was a sheep born without a nose. How do you think he smelled? Awful, just like all the other sheep." He laughed every time, his pipe clicking against his false teeth. My grandfather was a one-joke man; if you've got a good one, stick with it. I laughed along with him, even after the only thing that was funny was the fact that he was telling the same joke again. For me, coming home always had to do with language. My mother's ancestors, like most of the people who settled this part of Appalachia in the 1750s, came from Ulster, England, or Germany. Appalachians have always been conservative speakers. For the longest time people in the southern mountains resisted the homogenizing influence of middle-American speech and kept the distinctive accent that developed in the early 1800s. The Scotch-Irish lilt, along with a delight in rich metaphor, prevails. My Piedmont relatives used words like "reckon" and "yonder." People spoke about feeling "poorly" or "dauncy"-worse than poorly, I think. A paper bag was a "poke." Cast-iron frying pans, those old black ones that weighed a ton, were "skillets" or sometimes "spiders." Young lovers went "a-court'n." My Grandfather Bell might say, "The porch needs a-paint'n." Or, "By jacks, look who's a-com'n through the door," placing the "a" before verbs to keep the rhythm in his talk alive. Since the 1950s, television and popular music have weakened Appalachian speech, but it's still here. Mountain talk is highly inflected; it rises and falls like spoken poetry. The only national figure who sounds like my Piedmont relatives is Loretta Lynn, the country singer from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. (Lynn not only sounds like one of my relatives, she also looks something like my mother.) To my ear, Appalachian speech is music. Despite pleasant memories, what remains most vivid about those visits, at least now as I look back on them at fifty-six, is the strain between the Bells and the O'Briens and my father's anxiety about being home. The families did not get along, and in fact refused to recognize each other's existence. They never exchanged harsh words-in my presence anyway-but I cannot remember anyone from one family referring to someone from the other by name. It was always, "Will you be having dinner up the hill then?" Or "How long will you be down at the other place?" I remember driving to the Kroger store with Grandmother O'Brien. My mother sat between my father, who was driving, and Grandmother O'Brien on the passenger side. On the way back, my mother had to speak to her father about something, and so we pulled up beside the Bells' house. As Grandfather Bell approached her window, Grandmother O'Brien became as stiff as a mannequin, staring straight ahead without blinking or making the slightest movement. For some reason, I thought she was attempting a magic trick; if she sat absolutely still and held her breath, she would become invisible. The trick seemed to work because Grandfather Bell spoke to my mother right through Grandmother O'Brien's face, as if she were not there. The Bells lived in a pleasant brick house in the valley bottom, in a part of town called The Orchard. Like most of Piedmont's quality folk, they were prominent Presbyterians. The O'Briens lived "up the hill"-sometimes "up the mountain"-not far from where the "coloreds" lived. Even as a boy I understood that "up the hill" indicated more than direction. The expression carried unpleasant weight. My father's ancestors, Catholics, had come from southern Ireland as a result of the first potato famine in the nineteenth century. Catholics were, and still are, a rare and suspect breed in Appalachia. (There was no Catholic church in Piedmont. To attend Sunday mass, we drove across the erector-set bridge into Westernport, Maryland. Catholics from small towns up and down the river did the same.) When my father was a boy, Catholics were also at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, and so it is difficult to determine where religious intolerance ended and imaginary class distinctions began. In any case, the families could not abide one another. Class difficulties played out at mealtime. At the Bells', we sat down at a table covered with a linen tablecloth. Grandmother Bell, who had her white hair tinted blue each week, came to dinner in a housedress that made me think of the Donna Reed Show on television. My Grandfather Bell wore a fresh dress shirt to table each day. There were two forks-a mystery to me-a fancy butter dish, and those odd, fat butter knives. We only occasionally made conversation, rather than talked, and those meals were so quiet the only sound that I remember clearly is the clicking of forks against china. My father's profound sense of inferiority overcame him at times like that. The fear of saying or doing something that would shame his family terrified him. Sitting stiffly on the edge of his seat, he ner-vously watched my mother's hands from the corner of his eye. I don't think he ate anything at the Bells'. Once, when I asked my mother why he seemed so frightened, she told me about the first time he came to dinner at her house. My father, a skinny, freckle-faced boy, had taken a slice of butter for his dinner roll but ended up with too much on his knife. Frugal as always, he scraped the excess back onto the butter dish while Grandmother Bell watched in horror. My father flushed deep red and began to stammer apologies, which only made things worse. Oddly, I cannot recall any of the food at the Bells'. I do remember meals at the O'Briens', but not fondly. At the bare kitchen table "up the hill" we ate fried cornmeal mush, "hamburgs," green beans boiled with fatback, and stewed tomatoes mixed with gooey lumps of Wonder Bread. It was the kind of food "hillbillies" ate, and that distinction lies at the heart of the family strain. Like middle-class Americans anywhere, the Bells needed to establish clear distance between themselves and what they saw as the lowest social rank. In the southern mountains, this normal human impulse can be more intense and therefore more damaging...From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

A Conversation withJohn O’Brienauthor of At Home in the Heart of AppalachiaQ. Why do you think you had a difficult time "finding" Appalachia?A. There are really two Appalachias—the place I have always known and the mythic Appalachia most Americans imagine. My Appalachia is lush green mountains, deep forest, ice-cold trout streams, small hill-farms and little towns filled with unpretentious working-class people like my relatives. As I traveled around the country, it became clear that other Americans believed in a strange, woebegone place called Appalachia filled with throwback people lost in poverty, a mythic Appalachia created by backward hillbillies. But where exactly was the place and who was or was not Appalachian?As I would learn, the region of Appalachia was an arbitrary invention, and its boundaries were arbitrary as well. In some definitions, the region included "the mountainous backyards of nine states" and in others, the backyards of five. As it turns out, determining what it does or does not mean to be Appalachian is as difficult as locating the region itself. Q. Why did you write this very personal book at this time in your life? A. Most of the stories, articles and poems that I have written over the years are very "personal"—"close to the bone," some would say. Perhaps my father’s death made my own mortality real, and I became determined to understand his life and my own. I wanted to put parts of our lives on paper. It’s a delusion, but putting down what really happened was like not dying, like my dad and I might live on, if only in a literary sense.Q. The dynamics of father-son relationships seem to have an important role in At Home in the Heart of Appalachia. Why is that the case?A. My feelings for my father have always been ambivalent—loving him and needing his approval, but feeling desperate to escape his despair. This was true long before I understood it. The first amateurish story I tried to write was about him. Occasionally, I will start a story about characters and events altogether different and then, through countless revisions, find myself writing about my dad again. I have been preoccupied with my father all of my life; therefore, the fact that he became part of this book is not odd or unusual.More than that, the best parts of my childhood centered on hunting and fishing with my dad. After being estranged for twelve years, coming home to Appalachia, hunting and fishing in the mountains, and trying to reconcile with my father became part of the same effort. Q. What drew you back to live in West Virginia?A. Despite fifty years in Philadelphia, my parents never stopped thinking of West Virginia as home. After my boyhood visits, seven years of college in Morgantown, and marriage to my West Virginia wife, it was home for me as well. For us, life outside the mountains seems brittle and thin. When we became weary of traveling and wanted to settle, West Virginia was the natural choice. Beyond this, we wanted our children to grow up near grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.Q. Since you first visited Appalachia as a boy, what have been the biggest changes for you and the other residents of the area?A. Piedmont, my father’s hometown, was a lively working-class town when I was a boy and now the town is dying. When I was a boy in the 1950s, family farms and the small towns near them were alive and well. In a 1950 census, 87% of Pendleton County’s population listed farming as its only source of income. By the 1970 census, however, it was down to 17% and it is even lower now. This pattern holds true across the state and region. As farms failed and land prices plunged, the population declined in Appalachia. Beautiful scenery, a sane, measured life, low taxes, and land at bargain basement prices caught the attention of people in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. When I was a boy, outsiders—"come-heres" in Pendleton County talk—were rare in the mountains. No longer. When I was a boy, TV and radio reception was limited to a few local stations in the mountains. Now satellite dishes are so commonplace a commentator has described them as West Virginia’s state flower. This means that Appalachians now watch the same news programs, talk shows, soap operas, sporting events, and commercials that everyone in America watches--and at the same time. In the 1950s many adolescents listened to George Jones, Hank Williams, and Loretta Lynn. Now they listen to Radio Head, In Sync, and the Back Street Boys like adolescents all over the country. Dress styles, speech patterns, and everyday opinions—those things that gave the region its distinct charm— have become more homogenized. Within days after seeing the newest Rap music gestures on MTV, I see them on Main Street in downtown Franklin. I do not see changes like this as good or bad.Q. What do you like and dislike most about Appalachia?A. I like the people in the southern mountains, or most of them in any case. People here tend to be unpretentious, straightforward, open, and easygoing. Common sense and commitment to family are common virtues. Appalachians tend to look back more than most other Americans. They define who they are by how they fit into extended family, which includes ancestors. Mountain cultures feel old and deeply rooted. There is a strong sense of place here and I like all of this. And most of West Virginia is simply beautiful.On the other hand, Appalachians can be extremely provincial and intolerant. The gender roles are limited here. People hold narrow opinions about what constitutes "real" work, proper behavior, and proper dress. An anti-intellectual current runs through small Appalachian communities. It is okay to be smart about making money, fixing cars, farming, or building houses, but there is a general suspicion about "too much deep thinking."Conditions in the coalfields and chemical communities are appalling. The southern Appalachians was one of the richest and loveliest regions in America. But to drive through the horror of the coalfields and chemical communities and see what rapacious greed has done to the landscape and to the lives of the people is profoundly depressing. Outside coal interests still run the show. Mountains are still strip-mined. The coal and profit leave the state. Politicians controlled by King Coal mouth platitudes, and nothing changes. Politically, Appalachia is hopeless and absurd.Q. You write that subsistence fishing is the "closest thing to religion" in your life. What do you mean by that?A. When I was an altar boy, serving mass made me feel that I was part of some grand design, that I belonged in the world in a special way. A feeling much like that comes over me on the river at dusk: Wading knee-deep as the light fades, owls call from the darkness and the water slips against my legs like silk. I feel I am part of something larger.Q. What role did coal mining have in Appalachia?A. Asking what role coal played in Appalachia is like asking what role politics played in America. Where does one begin? Coal has affected and continues to affect every aspect of our lives. Between 1885 and 1930, the coal industry, in conjunction with timber interests, swindled thousands of Appalachian families out of ancestral land. As a direct result, 75% of West Virginia’s land and 85% of its natural resources—primarily coal now— belong to outside interests. Outside control of land and resources means outside control of state government; he who pays the Piper calls the tune. State taxes on coal—set by legislation controlled by the coal industry—are absurdly low. We end up with poor roads, underfunded schools, corruption. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as coal companies swindled families out of land, the social order in the southern Appalachians collapsed. The unmitigated hell of coal boomtowns created unbelievable squalor and violence. Coal operators blamed all of this on backward culture and feral people. American newspapers accepted this explanation without question. Reporters wrote countless stories about "blood feuds" and "West Virginia savages" that helped create the stereotypes about Appalachians. In Appalachian coal towns, mining is the only source of employment. This has meant that a vast population has been entirely dependent upon the boom and bust cycle of the coal market for over a hundred years. Families live in company houses on company land and have done so since the 1890s. It is feudal. When the market price of coal plunges, as it often does, thousands of men lose jobs. Large-scale chronic unemployment, it goes without saying, creates profound social problems. Everyone suffers. In short, almost all of the region’s problems circle back to coal.Q. What role have missionaries played in Appalachia?A. From 1885 to the present, thousands of missionaries have come into the southern Appalachians and there seems no end in sight. Most missionaries are decent, well-intentioned people who often sacrifice lives of relative comfort to work long and hard to"help" Appalachians. For over a hundred years, they have provided food, medical assistance, emotional support, and spiritual guidance to any number of families and individuals in this part of the country. I find it impossible to hold hard feelings about good-hearted people.On the other hand, missionaries are blind to their cultural assumptions and they end up facilitating the agendas of the more aggressive—at times rapacious—elements in the dominant culture they come from. The missionary agenda has always been more social than spiritual. The Appalachian "problem" —the tragic effects that industrialization was having in the mountains—was like the elephant in the living room. The missionaries talked endlessly about how difficult it was to live in cramped quarters, about how to make use of limited space, and better ways to deal with knee-deep elephant shit, but they never talked about the elephant.Q. For many readers, Appalachia brings to mind L’il Abner, hillbillies, moonshine, poverty, and the Hatfield-McCoy feud. Where do these stereotypes come from, and is there any truth in them?A. Appalachian stereotypes—Little Abner, hillbillies, moonshine, poverty and the Hatfield-McCoy feud —all began in the 1880s when the turmoil of rapid industrialization, the missionizing effort, and an American literary phenomenon known as the local color movement came together. This is a complex question and I will do my best to be brief.In the Appalachians, industrialization was lightning-fast and brutal. By 1930 the oldest and largest hardwood forest that human beings will ever know had been clear-cut, and mines had laid waste to large portions of the landscape. When the social order collapsed, men who had been swindled out of land became bitter and often drank too much. Suspicion and mistrust ran wild. The boomtowns, as I said, were just awful. And the robber barons blamed what they had created on backward Appalachians.The missionaries, who came from the same set of middle-class American families as the robber barons, went along with this. They never interfered with the industrialists, forewarned mountain people, or entered the horrific boomtowns. When the missionaries campaigned for funds—and you must understand how relentless this was, thousands of missionaries speaking in churches and other public forums—they described Appalachians as child-like and backward. The squalor and violence of the boomtowns had nothing to do with the captains of industry—who often made generous donations—but resulted from these strange, sad people and their backward culture.As the missionary effort expanded, this meant creating the strongest case for backwardness and need, which led to a habit of distortion and exaggeration. In some cases, this meant focusing exclusively on sensational aspects of poverty at the expense of everything that might have been normal or even admirable about the people in the mountains. At other times the missionaries simply lied. Establishing cultural "otherness" was at least as important as establishing poverty. The local color movement—perhaps thirty writers who lived between 1885 and 1930—wrote stories and books about out-of-the-way "corners" of America. These exotic places were "in America but not, as yet, part of America." The southern Appalachians were close at hand for most writers and the industrialists had built railroads into them.Between 1885 and 1930, novels and stories about strange hillbillies in the Appalachian Mountains became, as they say, all the rage. As realistic as shoot-’em-up cowboy books or Harlequin romances, these novels should have been harmless diversions, but eager to confirm their middle-class status, nouveau riche Americans read them as journalism. Appalachia and hillbillies became fixtures in America’s imaginary landscape. Hillbilly cartoons appear in major magazines again and again. They also appear in movies and in jokes that are repeated endlessly. In a sense, the existence of cartoonish hillbillies makes the American middle-class feel more secure about their sophistication and arrival. All of this has made mythic Appalachia real in the popular imagination.And simply put, there was no Hatfield-McCoy feud. In 1897 Governor Buckner of Kentucky invented a "feud" out of two unrelated incidents to ingratiate himself to industrialists who he wanted to come to his state and “save” it. Reporters simply accepted everything local politicians told them and wrote accounts of a "blood feud" filled with feral hillbillies. In point of fact, Appalachian communities were remarkably nonviolent until the onslaught of industrialization began in the 1880s. The stereotypes persist because politicians, missionaries desperate for funds, the media desperate for sensational "news," and the insecure middle-class find them useful. This kind of thing never stops. Unemployment is extremely high in the coalfields and this creates serious social problems. But the unemployment and the problems have nothing to do with "backward hillbillies." West Virginia, with a per capita income of $18,957, is 49th out of 50 states. Funds for highways and education are seriously limited. But these conditions result from the fact that 75 percent of the state and 85 percent of its natural resources belong to outside interests that control legislation and keeps tax rates low. Conditions in the coalfields —rundown towns, high unemployment, devastated landscapes—are dreadful, but this has nothing to do with mountain cultures. Q. What do you want the reader to come away from your book feeling about Appalachia?A. I want readers to understand that mythic Appalachia—hillbillies who have created squalor and are too backward to help themselves—never existed. I want them to know that one of the richest and loveliest regions of America was savagely exploited and that the exploitation continues. Despite this outrage, and the political corruption resulting from it, most Appalachians live in decent, modest homes, own and drive normal cars, care about their families, and go to work every day. Most people who live in the southern mountains are as confused about what "Appalachia" means or what it means to be "Appalachian" as I was before a great deal of research. In fact, most of the people who live in the southern mountains utterly reject the Appalachian label despite loving the region. I would like to put a small dent in the myth of Appalachia.

Editorial Reviews

“A magnificent, and major, book.... A true addition to the literature of America.” --The News & Observer“This is a heartfelt book that you quickly get comfortable in. As endearing as a friend.” --Edward Hoagland“An illuminating meditation on a singular American place . . . rich and bighearted."--Atlanta Journal Constitution"Offers deep, lingering pleasure."--Jonathan Harr “[A] beautiful reading experience.” --Stuart Dybek