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April 2018 Reviews

April 2018 Reviews


Gabriel’s Songbook by Michael Amos Cody. Asheville, North Carolina: Pisgah Press, 2017. 284 pages. Trade paperback, $17.95.

This novel begins when Gabriel Tanner is a high school student in the North Carolina Mountains and follows him as he seeks fame and fortune as a singer in Nashville before returning home again. “What a wonderful book! Artistic ambition, first love, small-town Appalachian life, the image-obsessed machinations of the Nashville music industry: all ring so authentic, so true. Michael Amos Cody’s first novel is gripping poignant, and unforgettable. – Jeff Mann. “Gabriel’s Songbook resonates like a great ballad, a song of love and struggle that keeps chiming in the ears long after the final note is played.” – Jesse Graves. The author, Michael Amos Cody, worked as a Nashville songwriter before earning his PhD in English from the University of South Carolina. He now teaches in the Department of Literature and Language at East Tennessee State University


Weedeater: An Illustrated Novel by Robert Gipe. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018. 242 pages featuring drawings by the author. Hardback in dust jacket, $27.95.

Robert Gipe’s novels are unique. Every few pages are graced with one or two of his line drawings with captions that illustrate what is happening. His first, Trampoline, exploded onto the regional literary scene in 2015 and caused ripples throughout the country. It was widely viewed as an authentic window into contemporary Appalachian life. Dawn Jewell, its fifteen-year-old protagonist, moved anxiously between the home of her addict mother and her mamaw, an anti-strip-mining activist deep in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields. Weedeater picks up the story of Dawn Jewell six years later. Now she is a young mother feeling life’s turmoil with a new kind of urgency. “No other work in this century shifted the literary landscape of Appalachia like the publication of Robert Gipe’s novel Trampoline. Now comes its sequel—just as searing, relentless, and gripping. With his cast of misfits, Gipe is redefining and reimagining the American social novel. His language is lightning on the page.”—Erik Reece. “Dawn Jewell is back and so is Robert Gipe. Weedeater is a pitch-perfect look at our beloved Appalachia, at once an amalgam of masterful writing and characters that are funny and smart and fully human. Such a powerful book.”—Crystal Wilkinson. “Weedeater had me by the heart and the gut. It is big, bad, throaty, loving storytelling of giant proportions and devastating quickness. It’s an incredible book, and it’s made me a Robert Gipe fan for life. Read this.”—Kayla Rae Whitaker. “Robert Gipe is the real deal: a genuine storyteller, a writer of wit and style, wisdom and heart. His characters are as alive as anybody I know, and his sentences jump off the page. I find myself reading them out loud to whoever’s handy and saying, ‘This is how it’s done.’”—Jennifer Haigh. It’s only about 60 miles from Kingsport, Tennessee, where Robert Gipe grew up to Harlan, Kentucky, where he now lives and teaches at a nearby community college. But the difference between a small industrial city and a coal town are considerable, especially now that coal is in decline. Gipe, as he is called more often than Robert, is a tall, slender man who stands above the crowd physically. Now his unique combination of whimsical art and entrancing writing has lifted his literary reputation even higher.


Jaws of Life: Stories by Laura Leigh Morris. Morgantown: Vandalia/West Virginia University Press, 2018. 155 pages. Trade paperback, $18.99.

The stories in this collection are all set in the fictional town of Brickton, West Virginia, and written by a native of North Central West Virginia. The author, Laura Leigh Morris, worked for five years at a Texas Prison and now teaches creative writing and literature at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. “’Look for something no one else sees,’ says one character in this fine debut, in which the people of Brickton lose many things – loved ones, their tempers, a good night’s sleep, five years of freedom, but never their power.” Jonis Tevis. A very fine work with plenty of surprises, clever setups, satisfying payoff, and vivid characters.” – Robert Gipe. “Jaws of Life surges beyond Appalachian literature, or regional literature, straight into the heart of what matters on the universal level.” – George Singleton. “Laura Leigh Morris proves to us that stories are, indeed, everywhere. She tells them with the sharp eye and wit of a master storyteller.” Larry Heinemann.


Country Dark by Chris Offutt. New York: Grove Press, 2018. 231 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $24.00

Chris Offutt is clearly one of our region’s most distinguished writers, and his seventh book, only his second novel, has been awaited with great anticipation. Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, a small, very rural, community not far from Morehead State University. He dropped out of high school and traveled around the country taking whatever jobs he could find before returning to Morehead to get a degree in Theater and English. After more travels, he was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop and has had mostly academic jobs ever since. His career got off to a terrific start with the story collection, Kentucky Straight (1992), still one of the best books for fiction teachers because of the combination of amazing turns of phrase and sweeping verisimilitudes so true to life that they are almost guaranteed to either piss you off or impress you with their wisdom. Since then he has written two autobiographies, another story collection, a novel and a biography, My Father, the Pornographer (2016). He has also been a screenwriter for two television series, True Blood and Weeds, This novel, Country Dark, takes place between 1954 and 1970. The protagonist, Tucker, returns to Eastern Kentucky from the Korean War, goes to work for a local bootlegger, falls in love and starts a family. When his family is threatened, he responds, and the plot begins to take turns that have led the book to be viewed as “country noir.” Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review and commented, “A Southern gothic story . . . Offutt has a fine ear for Kentucky-speak . . . that capture[s] the rhythms of rural conversation . . . Tucker is a knotty and complex character . . . A compelling and brooding read.” Publishers Weekly enthused, “Offutt’s exceptional new novel brings to light with gritty, heartfelt precision what one character, a social worker, calls the ‘two Kentuckys, east and west, dirt and blacktop.’ . . . Offutt’s prose cuts deep and sharp . . . An undeniable testament to the importance and clarity of Offutt’s voice in contemporary American literature.”


Point of the Pick: A Novel of the 20th Century by Curtis Seltzer. Blue Grass, Virginia: self-published, 2018. 752 pages. Trade paperback, $29.99.

This 752-page tome of a novel centers on West Virginia coal miners, union struggles and organized crime. A self-described “ex-college radical” Seltzer has lived and worked on a cattle and timber farm in Highland County, Virginia, since 1983. Four books compile newspaper columns he has written.



The Climb from Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia by Nancy L. Abrams. Morgantown: Vandalia/West Virginia University Press, 2018. 243 pages with photos. Trade paperback. $26.99.

The author of this downright compelling memoir, Nancy L. Abrams, reminds me of Cheryl Strayed – spirited, frank about sex and pot, and unobtrusively contemplative. The short chapters are separated into even shorter sections, so the book is easy to pick up and put down. The story begins when Abrams, a self-described “Jew-ish” girl from St. Louis, arrives from the University of Missouri School of Journalism to work for the Preston County [West Virginia] News in 1974. Preston County is a land of pastoral and natural beauty located between West Virginia University in Morgantown and the Maryland line, bordered on the north by Pennsylvania, and on the south by hundreds of miles of mountains and small communities all the way to Roanoke, Virginia. Two strands of youth culture rebellion, the working class “outlaw” and the middle class “hippie,” tend to merge in less populated rural areas, and are compatible, mostly, with earning a living. This memoir illuminates this lifestyle as Nancy falls in love with Preston County and a young local man, who she realizes, after she marries him, is, in her words, “barely literate.” The memoir covers fourteen years of her life, until – after she lands a good job with the Morgantown paper - she and her two boys leave her husband and Preston County and move to Morgantown. “Abrams writes sharply and passionately, with a journalist’s skill at laying out compelling facts, and with an artist’s ability to make us experience this life with her.”—Meredith Sue Willis. “A must-read for West Virginians. For journalists and would-be journalists. For feminists, young and old. And mothers. For old hippies and anybody who came of age in the sixties and seventies. For anybody who’s taken a toke or two. For anybody who has tried to balance integrity with duty, dropping out with pursuing a career while trying to succeed as a breadwinner and parent.”—Sara Pritchard.


Counting Down: A Memoir of Foster Parenting and Beyond by Deborah Gold. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018. 246 pages. Trade paperback. $22.95.

This book presents a really creative and comprehensive picture of foster parenting. It starts with a poem from a 13-year-old boy in foster care, and includes his poems and essays, written at various ages, throughout. The perspective of the foster mom is given by the author who also does an outstanding job of presenting the viewpoints of the birth mother, the birth father who was serving time in prison, social workers, the courts, other foster parents, and other people involved. Pseudonyms are used for the author and all other persons, and the locale is also hidden except for the fact that the setting is somewhere in Appalachia. The fact that both blurbs provided are from outstanding regional fiction writers demonstrates that this memoir is not just informative, but also very well-written. “Counting Down is a deeply moving memoir about both the rewards and the daunting challenges of being a foster family. By choosing to incorporate both parent and child perspectives, Deborah Gold has created a unique and valuable book. Bravo.”—Ron Rash “Counting Down is an extraordinary story of loss and recovery that documents the breakdown and rebuilding of lives, family, and human potential. Deborah Gold is a gifted writer, and the kind of person who makes our world not only bearable but meaningful. This an intimate account of struggle, joy, and the bonds that sustain families and communities.”—Robert Morgan.


Lost Places: On Losing and Finding Home by Cathryn Hankla. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2018. 269 pages. Trade paperback, $20.00.    

This is Cathryn Hankla’s first non-fiction book after publishing nine poetry collections and five novels! Cathryn Hankla grew up in Richlands, Virginia, where her father ran a drug store and her mother worked at the public library. Immersed in books as a child, it was natural for her to seek a career as a literature and writing professor. She writes, "Sometimes…I'm most at home in books, writing or reading. I finish one, fold my tipi, and start another." A huge part of her life journey became a search for a true home of her own. This book is her contemplative story of that quest which currently finds her in the Roanoke, Virginia, area where she teaches at Hollins University. “In her graceful, openhearted style, Cathryn Hankla invites us along on her life journey--her far-flung expeditions, spiritual quests, quiet moments of joy, longings, grievous losses, and optimism about tomorrow. This evocative memoir is a stimulating narrative of ideas as Hankla engages readers in questions about gender, race, history, nature, and the meanings of home. One finishes LOST PLACES wanting more, ready to get in her car for another next adventure with this lively, provocative companion.”--Valerie Miner. “Hankla leads readers on a beautiful Magical Mystery Tour of worlds both seen and unseen, personally touching something elemental and eternal in us all--a longing for one's true home. By turns heartbreaking, illuminating, and fiercely brave, Hankla's LOST PLACES is a book to savor and be read slowly, dwelled with and inspired by--a stunning meditation on what it means to be a human shaped by nature and memory.” – James Dodson.


Gone Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s Mountain Dream by Graham Hoppe. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2018. 154 pages with photos, Index, Bibliography, Notes, and A Note About Sources. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.95.

This book is an expansion of Graham Hoppe’s thesis in the folklore program at the University of North Carolina. It is a study of popular culture that grapples with the image of the Appalachian Region portrayed at one of its most popular tourist attractions. “Gone Dollywood is a landmark study. Graham Hoppe eloquently explains why Dollywood draws thousands of visitors each year and captures East Tennessee worlds in significant ways. This fine book, like Dolly Parton, will touch the heart of its readers.”—William Ferris. “Graham Hoppe’s Gone Dollywood places Dolly Parton’s theme park, persona, and career within a broader history of the collisions of fact and fantasy, folk and celebrity, and art and commerce that have buffeted the Tennessee mountains Dolly calls home. Like Parton herself, the book is disarmingly open and friendly on its surface, with an impressive core of smart and savvy.”—Jason Mellard. “With an engaging and singular voice, Hoppe shows us just how Dollywood reflects, shapes, and challenges stereotypes of Appalachia, hillbillies, and country music, leading readers to understand Dollywood as an indispensable point of departure for broader conversations about gender, race, and class.”—Jessie Swigger, The author, Graham Hoppe grew up in Indianapolis and now lives and works in Raleigh, North Carolina.


Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham by Melanie S. Morrison. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2018. 256 pages with photos, Index, Bibliography and Notes. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.95.

On August 4, 1931, 18-year-old Nell Williams, her sister, and a friend were attacked on Shades Mountain near Birmingham. Nell Williams was shot in the arm but survived. Her two companions died of gunshot wounds. Williams claimed that their assailant was a well-educated, stout, light-skinned, Negro from the North. That night, white vigilantes unleashed a reign of terror on Black neighborhoods of Birmingham and all over Alabama, burning down Black businesses and harassing Black citizens. Law enforcement authorities encouraged white vigilantes to “help” them find a suspect and blamed Communist Party activists without a shred of evidence. Hundreds of Black men were detained and questioned, many brought in from distant communities. Birmingham’s Communist Party headquarters was raided, and among those detained but released was Angelo Herndon who was later convicted of insurrection in Atlanta in 1932 for organizing for the Communist Party. Weeks later, Willie Peterson was detained and then charged with the murders despite the fact that he bore no resemblance to the description that Nell Williams gave of her attacker. The Williams family asked to meet with Peterson, and Nell’s brother, Dent, shot him three times, but was later acquitted of attempted murder. Peterson was convicted and sentenced to death, but the NAACP and the Communist Party defended him, and he died of tuberculosis in jail in 1940. Publishers Weekly gave this book a starred review and commented, "In this passionate account of Jim Crow–era injustice, educator and activist Morrison exposes how courtrooms 'could function like lynch mobs when the defendant was black.'... Morrison, who is white, shares this painful story with clarity and compassion, emphasizing how much has changed since the 1930s, how much white people need to 'critically interrogate' the past, and how much 'remains to be done' in the fight for justice." The author, Melanie S. Morrison, is the founder and director of Allies for Change and a United Church of Christ pastor with a Masters of Divinity from Yale and a PhD from a university in The Netherlands. She lives in Michigan. This is her fourth book.


Endless Caverns: An Underground Journey into the Show Caves of Appalachia by Douglas Reichert Powell. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018. 218 pages with photos, figures, a map, Noes on Sources, Index of Caves and Caverns and a General Index. Hardback in dust jacket. $28.00.

The author, Douglas Reichert Powell, describes this as a book of “creative non-fiction,” making no sociological or historical or geological claims of authenticity, but giving him the freedom to enjoy writing about a topic that fascinates him. Two more disclaimers are appropriate. This book limits itself to the caves of the great Shenandoah and Tennessee Valleys and adjacent ridges, and thus does not even extend to Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, Tennessee, nor Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Finally, the caves considered do not even have to be currently show caves or open to the public or even, in the case of Nickajack Cave, be filled with air instead of the waters of the dammed-up Tennessee River. This book provides quite an enjoyable journey and does offer considerable insights into the disciplines not claimed. “Reichert Powell's research is authoritative, and his love for the topic radiates from the book.” --Scott Huler “A revelatory and compelling introduction to another Appalachia--Appalachia Underground.”--Jeff Biggers. The author, Douglas Reichert Powell was first exposed to Appalachian caves as an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University, and became more deeply engaged in regional studies as a graduate student at East Tennessee State University. His doctorate in English is from Northeastern University, and he currently teaches at Columbia College in Chicago.


Melungeon Portraits: Exploring Kinship and Identity by Tamara L. Stachowicz. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company,Publishers, 2018. 208 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Chapter Notes, and photos. Trade paperback, 39.95.

With a rare combination of depth and accessibility, this book provides an introduction to the subject of Melungeons while simultaneously imparting new insights and information for those thoroughly immersed in the subject. The heart of this book is written “portraits” of people who currently identify as Melungeon. That is preceded by a chapter entitled, “Literature and Research Review” and followed by a final chapter, “Implications for Activism.” This is the 44th book in McFarland’s “Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies series. The author, Tamara L. Stachowicz, is a professor in Michigan with roots in the Cumberland Gap area.


Hotter Than A Pepper Sprout: A Hillbilly Poet’s Journey from Appalachia to Yale to Writing Hits for Elvis, Johnny Cash & More by Billy Ed Wheeler. New York: BMG Publishing, 2018. 250 pages with a Foreword by Janis Ian, and Introduction by Doug Orr, a Discography, photos, and drawings by the author. Hardback in dust jacket, $24.99.

The creative accomplishments of Billy Edd Wheeler in a wide variety of fields are astounding and virtually unprecedented. He is a painter, a poet, a musician, a creator of plays and outdoor dramas, and best known as one of the most distinguished song-writers of his generation. The title of this autobiography comes from a line in “Jackson,” a song that Billy Edd Wheeler wrote that became a big hit for Johnny Cash and June Carter. The highs of Billy Edd Wheeler’s success in this memoir are not as fun or fascinating as the lows of his beginnings and his struggles to allow his art to support his lifestyle. Wheeler was born in 1932 and grew up in coal towns in Boone County, West Virginia, the son of a single mother and later the underappreciated step-son of an abusive step-father. He was whisked away, thanks to a high school counselor, to Warren Wilson Junior College and from there to Berea College, then Yale, and then the studios of Leibeer & Stoller, a New York publishing and song-writing team at the top of their game. His success there allowed him to return to North Carolina and marry the daughter of the President of his alma mater, Warren Wilson College, and from there to travel back and forth to Nashville as an accomplished song-writer, playwright, musician, painter and author.



Contrary-wise by Vickie Cimprich. Frankfort, Kentucky: Broadstone Books, 2018. 61 pages. Trade paperback, $16.50

St. Therese Catholic Church is located on Contrary Creek in Lee County, Kentucky, northwest of Beattyville. Built in 1948 it includes a kitchen and living quarters used by circuit-riding priests and missionary nuns. When Vickie Cimprich was teaching English at Lees College in adjoining Breathitt County, and on later visits, she also stayed there. These poems deal not only with the flora and fauna of Eastern Kentucky, but also the sometimes strained relationships between Catholics and Protestants here. In one poem a nun confronts anti-Catholic spectators at a ball game by suggesting, "Why don't you go to hell? They don't have any there." “Contrary-wise is an elegiac meditation on what is past, passing, and to come. Its voice is as clear and true as the creek it names.” – Joe Survant.


Singing with Jarred Edges by Joyce Compton-Brown. Charlotte, North Carolina: Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2018. 49 pages. Trade paperback, $12.00

Joyce Compton-Brown enjoyed a long career teaching literature and writing at Gardner-Webb University where she inspired many who have gone on to distinguished careers in that field, perhaps most notably Ron Rash. A few years ago she retired back to the higher North Carolina mountains where she and her husband, Les Brown, both grew up. This is her first poetry collection, following a chapbook. “Joyce Compton Brown’s wonderful new collection of poems could literally have been sung into being, filled with homespun eloquence and wisdom and all kinds of mountain music . . . Visual, melodic, character-driven, Joyce Brown’s extraordinary poems literally leap off the page. – Lee Smith. Music abound in Joyce Compton Brown’s Singing with Jarred Edges . . . Brown has succeeded admirably in her quest of “calling forth a living past, / giving strength for the present, / making bearable all thought / of the future.” – Jim Clark. Joyce Brown’s poetry is like the best bluegrass music; there is a strong sense of longing and loss, yet what is passing or past is honored through her artistry and makes what otherwise might be forgotten unforgettable. Singing with Jarred Edges is an exceptional book of poems.” – Ron Rash.



Maggie Boylan by Michael Henson. Athens: Swallow/Ohio University Press, a 2018 reprint of a 2015 release. 151 pages. Trade paperback, $18.95

These inter-connected short stories follow Maggie Boylan, an addict in Appalachian Ohio, as she navigates both an underworld of crime and an official world of treatment and the courts. “Nothing is pretty in this world, but much is beautiful seen through Henson’s compassion for his characters and his clarity about generations wrecked by capitalism without conscience.” – George Ella Lyon.