Reviewed by Morgan O’Grady
Susan Pickett was on my mind as I crossed Alabama’s state line after leaving West Virginia the same morning: her well-fed babies, her cutting hair in the yard and selling the excess food from her father’s land. She was an Alabama native transplanted to West Virginia during the Depression. Her memoir, The Path Was Steep: A Memoir of Appalachian Coal Camps During the Great Depression, explores her life and hopeful prospects with her hardworking husband as they keep moving during a quickly changing and hard-pressed-for-cash time.
My grandmother once stopped me in the bread aisle of the grocery store. At my eye level were hundreds of orange or white or clear wrapped bread loaves. She stooped down, “If you had ten cents that could buy you bread for the week or go see a movie, would you buy bread for your family or go to the movies?”
“I would go to the movies,”I said. Her face was appalled; my grandmother had caught the tail end of the Depression.
Pickett isn’t as worried; she buys new clothes when she has the money, but when they need to save they all pile into the car, Thunderbolt, to drive back home to Pickett’s father’s farm.
Her time in West Virginia offers her independence and room to grow. She raises her daughters, writes for the newspaper, helps neighbors, endures hostile house occupants, and almost dies. The tenderest thread of this memoir is the love that she shares with David. They send letters when apart during his search for work, and she always believes in him. Their love is their strength.
Her optimism is contagious. Her voice weaves a pleasant story in which even the miners have a good ending for the time being. The chapters of this memoir function as vignettes, short and fast and pleasant. Her prose is smooth but momentous, fully rendering each scene before moving on to new ones.
Pickett has hope; she never doubts her husband will provide and that the world will recover. Even when Mike Self comes to town, she holds strong, and the episode seems to breeze by. This is the kind of memoir that leaves me feeling light but cautious: country drives are a thing of the past and farms are fast to disappear and people don’t know their neighbors; would Mrs. Pickett feel as comfortable today?
The Path Was Steep allows readers to examine and admire the strength of the human will to survive, no matter the circumstances, and to consider how the many people inhabiting the world always retain a bit of their past even as they change. If one’s family base is strong, and if there is love, things will settle into place.
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