“Writing Appalachia,” edited by Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd

Reviewed by Charley Hively

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In his 1949 semi-autobiographical work The Thread that Runs So True, Jesse Stuart struck a resounding chord which still resonates today.  Set against the backdrop of rural Kentucky, Stuart recounts his 20-year career as a schoolteacher, a man horribly afraid of failure, but just as doggedly determined to succeed.  His almost stubborn perseverance is an homage which honors teachers and educators and provides a common thread, the importance of an individual’s education, most especially in Appalachia, for the outstanding work under review.

Writing Appalachia: an Anthology (U Kentucky Press, 2020), makes a powerful and emphatic statement: the literature of Appalachia, like Appalachia itself, “is complicated, and this rich complexity is worth celebrating and studying.”  Spanning nearly 750 pages, this single-volume work successfully accomplishes what many former anthologies of Appalachian literature have attempted, but have failed to do—provide a comprehensive look at Appalachia through the varying lenses of what constitutes the numerous, and sometimes arbitrary, “boundaries” of the region, include the works of the all-too-often marginalized groups and communities and individuals within those moving borders, eventually culminating in a genre-rich collection of voices which, when taken all together, simultaneously and   comprehensively defines both Appalachia and its literature.

The volume’s editors, Katherine Ledford and Theresa Lloyd, begin by tackling the time-worn and competing narratives of Appalachia.  The first narrative, that the people of Appalachia were “noble poor rural white people of northern European ancestry who spoke Elizabethan English,” constantly duels against the second, that Appalachians represent “degenerate poor rural white moonshiners and feudists who spoke substandard English.”  As they correctly note, these conflicting narratives remain highly popular today in a wide variety of platforms and media, from television and novels to music and internet memes.  This distinct dichotomy, they assert, continuously plays into the shifting landscape of “Appalachia” and the repeated attempts of scholars to study and anthologize its literature.

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Divided into eight parts, the anthology begins with the Oral Tradition of Native America, specifically the Eastern Band of Cherokee, and ends with modern and contemporary twenty-first century excerpts and pieces.  Many of the most important and recognizable names you would expect to encounter—Stuart, Still, McNeill, Walker, Dykeman, and Berry—are, of course, present.  However, many new names in Appalachian literature are represented as well:  Hansel, Mann, Anderson, Allison, Pancake, Lyon, and Chappell.  Also included are some surprises:  Nikki Giovanni, Robert Gipe, bell hooks, and Marilou Awiakta among others.  From a cursory glance, poetry may seem to dominate the volume as a genre, but short stories, dramas, novel excerpts, essays, and historical narratives invite the reader into longer, more substantial narratives and readings.

The current explosion of fiction and poetry publications combined with a renaissance of scholarship in Appalachia and its literature means many new writers aren’t or couldn’t be included, else I find it difficult to imagine how, possibly, the editors could have ever arrived a stopping point.  This anthology addresses and represents the varied dichotomies of Appalachia’s literature:  labor and poverty, identity and sexuality, family and place, land and agriculture, history and culture, feuds and wars, ceremony and ritual, slavery and race, folklife and tradition, and it does so in a breathtaking fashion.  As such, this book is an absolute “must have” for all academic and large public libraries; the definitive “textbook” for every Appalachian Studies or Appalachian Literature course; and is highly recommended for most small public and school libraries.  At $50, the price even makes it affordable to the individual reader.

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