Three books from Appalachia

I've just finished a review of Meredith Sue Willis's Out of the Mountains, a new collection of stories about people from the heart of the mountains. I'd seen a couple of the stories already in her earlier collection, and felt comfortable and familiar in the new ones, recognizing a landscape we shared for many years. MSW grew up in the Shinnston area of northern West Virginia, though she moved to New Jersey in adulthood- I grew up in New York State but lived for many years near Farmington, WV, just down the highway. So we saw those mountains from similar angles.

This book follows close on another, Degrees of Elevation, a new anthology of stories about Appalachia today. I treasured that chorus of voices considering that familiar mountain landscape in unique ways, from Chris Offutt to Crystal Wilkinson to Ron Rash, and was pleased to be counted among their number.

And that followed a reading of Miracle Boy by Pinckney Benedict, a native son of Southern Appalachia who walks some of the same paths as Breece Pancake, but who finds darker and more twisted ways into the laurel hells and isolated farms.

What links these three new story collections, all of them stellar, is a view of mountain culture that shares little with the popular perception of Appalachia - which extends from my birthplace in New York State all the way to Georgia. That's a great physical expanse, north to south, and like the degrees of elevation in the title of the anthology edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay, offers an incredible diversity of ecologies, human included.

This land of the popular imagination is thick with quilt-making grannies, moonshiners, coal miners, mental defectives, religious zealots, pure-hearted farmers, axe-men.

The reality is as diverse as the American landscape it traverses - a place of gated communities and mining "camps," of pristine streams and rivers clotted with red mine runoff, of colleges as diverse as Berea and West Virginia University and Warren Wilson, of high culture and traditional crafts pushed beyond the tradition, of every kind of hyphenated American.

Flying back from Washington after AWP, our commuter jet crossed Virginia, and from the air the last outliers of the Appalachians emerged from the flattening plain. They were wrinkled topographies of an ancient landscape, swallowed by erosion. I thought that they looked very much like those "necks" that extend into the ocean, dissected from the the mainland by the rivers near their end. So Appalachia continues, apart from the main, rising out of the main, and slowly returning to it.

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