— An essay and a short story collection respectively cast Appalachia and West Virginia in a richer light.
Appalachia comes and goes as a national conversation topic as pundits discover the region every few years and propose solutions to its problems, real and imagined. Rarely do they paint a picture of people with agency or delve into the subject deeply enough to question their own preconceptions. One recent example is mainstream media coverage of the teachers’ work stoppage in West Virginia, as many commentators seemed surprised that it could happen in so-called “Trump country” and denoted their obliviousness to the state’s history of labor struggles.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte refutes these narratives. The book has been described as a spirited rebuttal of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and its depiction of a homogenous Scots-Irish culture of people almost fated to remain behind as America progresses. But Catte’s succinct polemic is about much more, including an overview of iconic episodes of Appalachian political activism and an examination of historically significant authors like Harry Caudill (Night Comes to the Cumberlands) who have drawn attention to problems like poverty while sometimes promoting regional stereotypes.
While Vance recounts harrowing biographical episodes and assumes Appalachia is defined by one experience, Catte adopts a broader perspective. The book considers the role outside concerns have had in exploiting the region’s natural resources and influencing local politics, as well as that of community organizations promoting Appalachian culture like Appalshop and its radio station WMMT. Catte’s work puts forth a nuanced view beyond the bleak photo essays about Appalachia that so many papers ran in 2016—and naïve news stories on how the region will be revitalized as soon as more workers learn how to code and Uber driving gigs fill the void left by disappearing mining jobs.
A Writer to Watch
The mosaic of characters in Laura Leigh Morris’ debut short story collection Jaws of Life also provides a rich account of life in West Virginia. The strength of its stories, however, doesn’t lie in their factuality—we are not talking about journalism—but in their literary inventiveness, vivid characters, and the rich shared universe of Brickton, where most of them take place.
In “Frackers,” a widow adopts drastic measures to confront the mining company that is fracking the land that used to belong to her family. In the evocative “A Room With a Door,” Morris apparently draws from her experience teaching creative writing in a federal prison to tell the story of an inmate in a women’s prison near Morgantown who becomes part of the place’s mythology the day she gets tired of the noise and escapes. Exhibiting Morris’ range and ability to create compelling characters, the coming-of-age stories “Brickton Boys,” “The Dance,” and “Popular” deal with teenage rites of initiation and the struggle to assert one’s identity amid social pressure. The title story aptly weaves the theme of aging, and how life and happenstance can test the promise of a man to stay with his wife “until the very end.”
It’s tempting to compare a new author with established ones who have treaded similar paths—in this case, Bonnie Jo Campbell and Ann Pancake come to mind—but Morris has a voice of her own, and her ability to tell rugged tales with crisp prose are the markings of a writer to watch.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in The Texas Review and Boulevard.Review by Gonzalo Baeza