“Don’t Tell ’em You’re Cold: A Memoir of Poverty and Resilience,” by Katherine P. Manley

Katherine P. Manley

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Many times while growing up, Kathy Manley experienced the shame of poverty. Shame that kept her from inviting friends to the family’s shabby house filled with dumpster-salvaged furniture. Shame when a teacher took up a collection from classmates so Kathy could attend a football game. The real shame, however, is that any family in this wealthy country lacks adequate food. The real shame is that our social safety net is so inadequate. Don’t Tell ’em You’re Cold (Mountain State Press, 2019) is a powerful, moving memoir about growing up in southern West Virginia, one that is painful to read and, at the same time, illustrates the determination of its author to transcend poverty. Manley had an irrepressible belief that one day life would get better and the will to make it happen. This memoir was a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Writing Competition, an honor well-deserved.

Manley’s story reads much like Jeannette Walls’s Glass Castle, yet her family differs from Walls’s in important ways. Manley’s father lost one of his legs when he tried to hop on a train to Kentucky when he was sixteen. One of Kathy’s earliest memories is helping him scavenge through a garbage dump for a piece of wood suitable for a new peg leg. He finds a piece of pine he can carve into a new leg. That is not his only injury. When he worked for a coal operation loading dynamite, an explosion destroyed part of his left hand. Despite these injuries, her father works whatever odd jobs he can find to take care of his family. In addition to the small amount of welfare money he receives, he cleverly finds ways of “making do.” For example, he and Kathy stand by as coal trucks dump their loads in the tipple. Inevitably some lumps miss their target. Father and daughter pick up the lumps to sell to neighbors and to heat their own home.

Anecdotes about Kathy’s superstitious mother introduce humor early in the memoir. During a lightning storm, her mother frantically begs Kathy to help remove the bobby pins from her hair before lightning strikes her. Afterward, the naive child marvels that she has never considered how bobby pins could transform a human into a lightning rod. She is proud she might have helped to save her mother’s life. When Kathy begins to menstruate, her mother provides her with a list of things she cannot do, such as you can’t mop when you’re like this or it will stop the flow, and you can’t walk in the garden or you will kill the cucumber vines. The young woman wonders what kind of evil thing has happened to her.

Early in life, Kathy realizes her mother is lonely and sad. When Kathy is a young teen, her mother abandons the family, unable to endure the poverty any longer. Kathy now has the responsibility of helping her father take care of not only themselves but her younger sister and brother: “I went from being a daughter and sister to a Mother in the time it took for my mother to pack a bag and climb into a taxi, never looking back.” While Kathy refrains from condemning her mother, it is difficult for a reader not to. Her mother could have gotten a job and improved the situation for the whole family, but she lacked the strength of character her husband and daughter had. Kathy acknowledges this: “Poverty is cruel, but did it give her the right to walk out on us? Daddy experienced suffering and defeat along with her, but he stayed.”

Despite everything missing in the way of comfort and worldly goods, Kathy succeeds in school, becoming president of her homeroom and secretary of the sophomore class. Logan County Schools provide her with a summer job and a part-time job during the school year doing clerical work for the teachers. Kathy develops strength in ways her mother could not: “Running from poverty had driven me to work hard, to seek a higher education, and to take all the extra jobs I could to make sure that my family and I would never experience that painful life again.” She also finds comfort from God and the belief that “things would get better.”

Obviously things did get better. The author earned degrees from Marshall University and West Virginia University. A National Board Certified Teacher, she has been an educator in Logan County Schools for over thirty-five years. Her writing has been featured in Hamilton Stone Review, Traditions: A Journal of West Virginia Folk Culture and Education Awareness, and the Guyandot Observer. She has earned multiple awards for teaching, including finalist for West Virginia Teacher of the Year, Arch Coal Teacher of the Year, and the Prodigy Foundation Teacher Achievement Award given in memory of the Rocket Boys’ beloved teacher, Freida J. Riley of Coalwood, West Virginia. I admire this amazing woman tremendously. She pulled herself out of poverty, never abandoned her family, and devoted her life to education so others would also have a chance at a better life.

Long after reading this memoir, a question Kathy Manley raises will echo in my mind: “How could all men be created equal, when some people had food and some people didn’t?” If only no family, no child, ever had to ask this question.

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