When I was growing up, Southern Appalachia was a mystery, a region of the United States that was (and to a large degree, is) often denounced, caricatured, and stereotyped. When I began deciding what area of American literature I wanted to focus on in my graduate program, I chose Southern Appalachia. I wanted to learn more about the region and challenge the stereotypical representations of it—the hillbilly and Deliverance, among them—by studying the voices of people who live(d) in Southern Appalachia and who love(d) it.
James Still’s River of Earth is a beautiful novel which scholars frequently put into conversation with Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. A much slimmer, faster read, River of Earth is just as impactful as Steinbeck’s giant. Told from the perspective of a young, unnamed boy, we learn that the Baldridge and Middleton families are struggling to survive economic hardship, that the boy’s parents fight about whether they should be a farming or mining family, and that the boy must decide which communal and familial values he wants to embrace as he matures and which he wants to reject.
River of Earth is a compelling, tender coming-of-age story set in Eastern Kentucky that offers insights into a region that is often uniformly portrayed and/or misunderstood. Though it was published in 1940, the same year as The Grapes of Wrath, it remains relevant and timely. [Think for a moment about the uproar when Hillary Clinton said in 2016: “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?”]
I think that part of our Post-Trump election project is to consider how little we actually know about people with other backgrounds and/or beliefs than us and try to educate ourselves about American (and international) diversity. We do this partly through reading.
We shouldn’t expect River of Earth to tell us everything we need to know or everything that’s important about Southern Appalachia (because a big part of the problem is thinking that any one person can speak for an entire region or group of people), but it’s a good start.
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.