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December 2019 Reviews

December 2019 Reviews


A Bird on Water Street by Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Napierville, Illinois: Little Pickle Books/Sourcebooks, a 2019 reprint of a 2014 release. 310 pages illustrated by the author with five additional essays, including Questions for Discussion at the end. Trade paperback, $8.99.

Elizabeth Dulemba grew up in the Atlanta area, but lived in the early 2000s in rural Georgia, just south of Tennessee’s Copper Basin. This is where, from the 1840s until the 1980s, copper was mined. For decades sulfuric acid, a by-product of copper smelting, was released into the air killing all vegetation in a fifty square mile area, one of the world’s most dramatic evidences of environmental devastation. Dulemba interviewed Copper Basin old-timers, including Grace Postelle who told her the story of Helen McKay who witnessed the unusual sight of a bird on Water Street in Copperhill in the 1920s. That gave her the title - A Bird on Water Street - for this youth novel featuring 13-year-old Jack Hicks, which condenses much of the history of the Copper Basin, including a union strike, into a one-year time frame. "Dulemba expertly weaves the strands of Coppertown's environmental, economic, and personal relationships and gives a life-affirming portrait of a Southern Appalachian town needing and ready for new life. Jack's story is set in the late 1980s, but could replicate the experience of countless miners' children in this country and the world, in the past century and the present." - Anne Broyles. "Elizabeth Dulemba seamlessly melds a coming-of-age story to the reality of life in a single-industry town. This is a book that sings." - School Library Journal. When first published in hardback in 2014 this youth novel garnered fourteen awards. Elizabeth Dulemba is a professor of illustration at Winthrop University and teaches writing in the summer at Hollins University. She has won awards for illustrating and for writing over three-dozen books.


Papaw’s Treasure by Jessica Madison. Annville, Kentucky: Chinquapin Publishing, 2019. 27 pages, illustrated by Lee Ann Edwards.  A 8.5” X 8.5” paperback. $10.00.

Part memoir and part historical fiction, this book for all ages tells the story of a small family farm in the mountains. "A wonderful little book, Papaw's Treasure tells the story of life and change in the mountains of Appalachia, but it also raises important questions about the choices we make in modern America. A critical read for young people and adults in these times." Ron Eller. The author, Jessica Madison lives on a Southeastern Kentucky farm that has been in her family for seven generations. She earned a PhD from the University of Kentucky, and teaches on-line history classes.



When Silence Sings by Sarah Loudin Thomas. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2019. 342 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99.

This is the third well-received explicitly Christian novel by Sarah Loudin Thomas who lives near Asheville, but sets her fiction in West Virginia where she was born and raised. The setting for When Silence Sings is Thurmond, West Virginia, and the New River Gorge in 1930. The protagonist is Coleman Harpe, a railroad worker who is conflicted about becoming a preacher. His Harpe family is feuding with the McLean family, led by Serepta McLean, a powerful local business woman – a feud that has been reignited by the murder of Coleman’s cousin. This leaves lots of compelling issues to be resolved by the skillful hand of this talented novelist.


What They Yearn For, Volume 1 by Victor M. Depta. Frankfort, Kentucky: Blair Mountain Press, 2019. 320 pages. Trade paperback, $15.00

Victor Depta was born in raised at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia – yes, that Buffalo Creek that was devastated in 1972 when Pittston Coal Company’s coal slurry dam #3 burst, causing a flood that killed over one hundred residents, injured over a thousand, and left over four thousand homeless. Depta is a retired English professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin who has published eleven poetry books, four novels, two plays, two essay collections and a memoir. The protagonist of this novel, the first of a projected multi-volume series, is Dr. Ethel Gooch, who teaches English at an Eastern Kentucky University and is an amateur detective. The action continues when she retires to San Francisco, a setting the author, who earned his masters from San Francisco State, knows well.



Unnatural Resources: Energy and Environmental Politics in Appalachia after the 1973 Oil Embargo by Michael Camp. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: The University of Pittsburg Press, 2019. 192 pages with an index and notes. Hardback in dust jacket, $40.00.

This book clarifies for me the contrast between the years 1969 and 1973 when environmental regulation enjoyed considerable public support and the years after the Oil Embargo when both Democrats and Republicans became defenders of corporate power, and pro-market thinking replaced New Deal consciousness in the Democratic Party. Chapters focus in on particular controversial decisions, including the evolving role of the United Mine Workers, the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, the Tellico Dam, and the overall vision of the Tennessee Valley Authority. “Unnatural Resources brings fresh insight and perspective to our understanding of the tensions between energy security and environment protection in the 1970s. Camp dramatizes how conflicts over coal, nuclear power, and hydroelectricity in Appalachia were pivotal in shaping the energy legacy of the Carter presidency.”--Tyler Priest. The author, Michael Camp, is a professor and archivist at the University of West Georgia.



Oblivion Banjo: The Poetry of Charles Wright by Charles Wright. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019. 754 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $50.00.


Yes, 754 pages, not a misprint. Back in my July, 2019, reviews, I brazenly pontificated about Fred Chappell’s As If It Were: Poems, “If any other book gets any award for the most outstanding Appalachian poetry book of this year, one could easily argue that to be a travesty.” I spoke too soon and too carelessly. Yes, an awards committee could easily judge that a book of all new poems by Fred Chappell is more deserving than a compilation of poems previously published in book form, but there is no way that an award given to Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright would be a “travesty.” Nice that Chappell was a North Carolina Poet Laureate, but Wright was a United States Poet Laureate! Both earned a Bollingen Prize, but Wright also has a Pulitzer and a National Book Award to his credit, along with other prestigious commendations. This book reprints poems from seventeen of Wright’s twenty-two collections, including all the poems in Littlefoot. "Wright’s poetry is driven by a trembling wonder before existence, and by a profound sense of mortality . . . Reading the abundance collected in Oblivion Banjo ― 17 volumes over four decades or so, the work of a lifetime ― one is struck by the care and the craftsmanship, but even more by the intense gravity of the spiritual striving." ―Troy Jollimore, The New York Times Book Review. “For decades Charles Wright has been America’s backwoods Buddhist, its metaphysical gardener, its lore collector, a most cosmopolitan local . . . He simply listens, taking in what the land says without speaking. As a poet he creates a similar effect, whether working in a sestet or a sonnet, or in the long, wending lines of his 1995 volume, Chickamauga, Wright sounds the same: Like a poet looking inward and outward at the same time.” John Freeman,  Literary Hub. Charles Wright lives in Charlottesville where he was a distinguished professor at U. Va., and also enjoys time at his Montana second home.