When it comes to judging a book, titles can be just as deceitful as covers. With a title like F*ckface, one might expect Leah Hampton’s short story collection to be a brash set of tales rooted in hardscrabble Appalachia.
Ron Rash (1953) started out as a poet and short story writer in the ‘90s before he published his first novel, One Foot in Eden (2002) and the novel that catapulted him to national literary prominence, Serena (2008), later adapted into film. In his newest work, In the Valley, Rash returns to the short story form as well as to the characters of Serena in the novella that gives name to this collection.
The cover of John Woods’ debut novel Lady Chevy portrays a mountain landscape against an orange-hued backdrop. The colors may depict an oddly-tinted sunset or, more likely, the fiery, sulfurous sky of a land ravaged by the fracking industry, where flares emerging from giant towers light the horizon and tainted aquifers, flammable tap water, and earthquakes have become a normal occurrence.
In one of the most searing dialogues of Chris McGinley’s debut short story collection Coal Black, an eastern Kentucky drug dealer known as Hellbender asks a sheriff who’s been pursuing him: “Why do you think people around here are so addicted to drugs?” He answers his own question: “It’s because of depression. There is a streak of fatalism in Coal Black that is not just informed by the trappings of the crime fiction genre, but by the socioeconomic devastation of its rural Kentucky setting. The survivalist outlook of the characters in these stories is its inevitable consequence.
In Tim Westover’s novel The Winter Sisters, the hills of antebellum northern Georgia are the setting for a clash between science and magic in a story that treads nimbly between fantasy, picaresque, and historical fiction. In 1822, Savannah doctor Aubrey Waycross is invited to Lawrenceville, a remote town that, thanks to Westover’s evocative prose, seems to exist in a perpetual time warp where America is still new and tradition coexists with progress—a community that is as distant from cities as it is from the ripples of the Revolutionary War and the brewing tensions of the Civil War.
Timothy Dodd’s Fissures and Other Stories is a slim tome of 19 short stories that mostly take place in West Virginia, but whose range of themes and characters build a larger world, recognizable and yet intriguing.
The idea of going “back to the land” tends to evoke picturesque images of a nurturing earth and a supposed return to an uncorrupted, self-sufficient lifestyle. These beliefs are swiftly shattered for the characters of Madeline ffitch’s outstanding first novel, Stay and Fight (Farrar, Starus and Giroux, 2019). Narrated through the alternating points of view of its four protagonists, the novel introduces us to Helen, who at 31, is tired of “waiting for my life the whole time.” She decides to leave Seattle with her boyfriend Shane and, thanks to an inheritance from Helen’s deceased uncle, they buy 20 acres of land in Appalachian Ohio.
Andrea Fekete’s first novel Waters Run Wild was originally published in 2010. Even though it garnered rave reviews and the author’s work has been widely anthologized, the book suffered the fate of many independent press titles, and has long been out of print. Fortunately, this powerful novel of a family’s struggles during the West Virginia Mine Wars is back in an enhanced edition that introduces new readers to an outstanding voice and allows those who enjoyed its earlier version to reacquaint themselves with its elegant language and compelling characters.
Growing up, I had heard many negative stereotypes associated with folks from my home state, but when it was suggested that there was a real bias against West Virginians, I was unconvinced.
If Country Dark as a title is not enough of a harbinger of what’s in store for readers, the novel itself doesn’t take long to introduce us to a gritty rural Kentucky landscape as experienced by Tucker, a young Korean War veteran who’s returning home. Hitchhiking through the countryside and camping in the woods, his brief interlude of peace is interrupted when he sees a woman running along a dirt road.
“You work for someone [in the military] who’s your boss, and you work with other people. Everyone needs something different,” said “Frank,” a veteran originally from Sistersville (WV) who worked in the Navy’s visual communications team on an aircraft carrier. “Sometimes [worry] can follow you your entire life; you wonder, Have I done something wrong?”
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.
Master Gardner Angie Faulkner has a passion for saving seeds, so it isn’t surprising that she was the driving force behind the founding of the Bolivar-Harpers Ferry Seed Library—a community-sustained resource where gardeners can share their successes, skills, and, of course, seeds.
On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected 45th President of the United States, and on November 9, a group of media students and innovators at West Virginia University (WVU) knew what their newest project needed to entail—a truthful outlet from which Appalachia could be heard.
Thomas E. Douglass brings Grubb back from literary oblivion in his comprehensive biography Voice of Glory: The Life and Work of Davis Grubb. The Moundsville-born Grubb occupied a distinctive place in American letters primarily during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in a career that comprised ten novels and numerous short stories, he garnered acclaim only to be forgotten in recent years.