A Note from the Editor — We hear from our readers that Gonzalo’s book reviews are enjoyed by many — certainly they’ve been filling up my reading list. Unfortunately for all of us, Gonzalo will be taking a break for 2022 to attend to personal responsibilities that will require significant travel. While this hiatus may give me some time to work through the stack of his recommendations on my shelf, we will miss his pithy summaries and inspired selections. The Observer wishes him safe travels and we’ll keep some free space on the bookshelf for his future reviews.
— Stories from the Ballot Box, by H.S Leigh Koonce (Ellerslie Books, 2021)
It’s not good form to reminisce about oneself when reviewing a book written by someone else, especially a book that on the surface might seem a detailed account of Jefferson County’s electoral politics, but which is also a subtly personal look at a place to which the author is connected through generations. Still, as I read H.S. Leigh Koonce’s Stories from the Ballot Box. History and Reflections from Jefferson County, I couldn’t help but think of my own history with elections and voting.
In her introduction, former West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant points out how “voting is the right by which we have all other rights.” Personally, I didn’t know people were supposed to vote for their authorities and officials until I was 13 years old. Having grown up in a military dictatorship where the government had a tight grip on the flow of information, I simply thought, as a young man, that this was the way things worked. You had one head of state — forever.
As one goes through the pages of Koonce’s book and learns more about the strides made by different groups in gaining political representation across West Virginia, it is easier to understand his fascination with local politics. While one may not necessarily agree that voting is the right that affirms all others, it is undoubtedly a tool of empowerment, one that is inextricably tied to Jefferson County’s local character, history — and future.
Koonce currently serves as chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party Executive Committee, and he traces his family roots in the area to the late 18th century. Party affiliation aside, his book is a judiciously balanced account focused on women and African American candidates as well as the last 20 years of political elections in the county. The opening chapter alone is an excellent primer on the different political offices across the county and state, packing information that can help both newcomers and longtime residents understand the intricate web of elected positions that comprise our local and state political structure.
Narrated in a conversational tone, Koonce’s book is at once an informative resource on local history and an accessible work that often recalls that one acquaintance many of us know who has an encyclopedic knowledge of a subject and can always regale you with an interesting anecdote or a meaningful historical tidbit.
In the last chapter, Koonce reflects on the future of Jefferson County and laments the deterioration of public debate in local politics as disagreements become more acrimonious and the political divide often seems like an unbridgeable gap for neighbors who should be working together toward the county’s betterment. The phenomenon is undoubtedly a reflection of a broader national trend which, regardless of its causes, most can agree that it has become more vitriolic in the last decade or so. Local politics are not sheltered from this reality nor its more unsavory aspects such as online viciousness disguised as political activism and emboldened by anonymity. “I’m not sure I can recognize local politics anymore,” the author says, and he highlights the need for elected officials from across the political spectrum “who are well informed on the issues and willing to sit down and work together,” hoping the county can move beyond a climate of division.
It is in these passages that Koonce’s work ultimately reminds me of what Joan Didion said in her book The White Album about attachment to one’s home: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.”
Born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown, Gonzalo is a fiction writer with books published in Spain, Italy, and Chile. His stories have appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review.By Gonzalo Baeza