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February 2021 Reviews

February 2021 Reviews


Bluegrass Ambassadors: The McLain Family Band in Appalachia and the World by Paul O. Jenkins. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2020. 249 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, Discography, Chronology, Appendices, Family Tree, and photos. Trade paperback.

The McLain Family Band was formed in 1968 by Raymond K. McLain, then the Director of the Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. At the time, his son, Raymond W. was 15; daughter, Alice, was twelve and Ruth was ten. The father played the guitar, the son played the banjo; Alice played the mandolin, and Ruth play the bass. Two years later, he joined the faculty of Berea College, and the family moved to Berea, Kentucky. In 1977, Alice married the formidable musician, Al White, who became the most constant addition to the family band from then on, more so than Michael or Nancy, the younger children of Raymond and Betty McClain. Betty served as the manager of the group. In 1989 the group ceased to actively tour as Raymond was in his sixties and his children were raising their own families. For twenty years, the group was active, touring in over 70 countries and throughout the United States, and appearing with symphony orchestras more than 200 times! “The McLain Family Band has been a torchbearer for the music of America’s front porch. This is a story of a musical legacy, of passion and talent, of kind- ness and art wrapped in the magic of a family bond.” -- Michael Johnathon. “An excellent effort brimming with infectious joy.”​​​​​​​ --Library Journal. The author, Paul O. Jenkins, is the University Librarian at Franklin Pierce University.

ndustrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy edited by Fred Bartenstein and Curtis Ellison. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2021. 220 pages with an Index, Foreword by Neil V. Rosenberg, appendices, maps, and photos. Trade paperback.

The tone is set for the essays to follow by Phil Obermiller’s opening article: “Appalachian Migration: Setting the Musical Stage for Southwestern Ohio.” This theme continues to the next-to-the-last contribution: “Bluegrass Music and Urban Appalachian Identity” by Nathan McGee. "My family left Jackson County, Kentucky, in the late 1950s to find work in Ohio. The sounds and songs from home naturally tagged along with us. Riding around in Dad’s truck there as a kid, the first music I remember hearing was the Osborne Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs on WPFB. Industrial Strength Bluegrass brings to life how bluegrass developed in the Cincinnati/Dayton region. I love the vivid stories of how the genre came of age and all the fascinating characters who catapulted it onto the world’s stage."--Dan Hays. “The barroom bluegrass of Southwest Ohio spawned by Appalachian transplants who had taken the 'trail of the bologna rinds' was just as good and often more exciting than the bluegrass of the traveling professionals who first developed the music. When the two met here, it split the bluegrass atom."--Ron Thomason. Editor Fred Bartenstein teaches music at the University of Dayton and editor Curtis W. Ellison is professor emeritus of history and American studies at Miami University of Ohio.

Loved and Wanted: A Memoir of Choice, Children, and Womanhood by Christa Parravani. New York: Henry Holt, 2020. 206 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

What does the title of this memoir mean? “Loved and Wanted”: elusive, crucial goals for “Children” and “Womanhood.” “Choice”: as in abortion, which circles back around to “Loved and Wanted.” The author’s father wanted the pregnancy that created her to be aborted, and she feels an abortion “Choice” does not preclude “Loved and Wanted.”  Set in Morgantown, West Virginia, this is a memoir of a professor at West Virginia University that reads like the story of an unlucky marginal working-class woman – because she is. Her husband is a professor also, but not always helpful or even there. When she has two kids already and gets pregnant again, she agonizes and decides to have an abortion, but finds many kinds of barriers until it is too late. She gives birth. Her baby has health challenges. This is a frank, blow-by-blow, account of inadequacies all the way around: inside individuals who remind us of ourselves;  inside the family; inside the health care delivery system; inside jobs; inside state and local government - and their consequences. It is told in an engaging way, even an enveloping way. It is short to read and long to ponder.  "Haunting, wild, and quiet at once. A shimmering look at motherhood, in all its gothic pain and glory. I could not stop reading." ―Lisa Taddeo. "What emerges is not simply a portrait of Parravani's difficult marriage, painful health issues and stressful financial burdens but a complex picture of the unsayable circumstances that shape one woman's relationship to her body, to her choice to have children or not and the cost of that decision. In saying the unsayable, Parravani is unflinching and brave." ―BookPage. This is the second memoir by the author, Christa Parravani, a professor of creative non-fiction.

Movie-Made Appalachia: History, Hollywood, and the Highland South by John C. Inscoe. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 239 pages with an Index, Notes, and photos., Trade paperback.

The release of John Inscoe’s fifth book on Appalachia is a much-anticipated occasion in regional scholarship, as the first four books by this University of Georgia history professor – now emeritus - brought our understanding of our region dramatically forward. This book broadens the scope of his contribution well beyond its previous moorings in race and Civil War. His relatively positive perspective on Hollywood’s portrayal of the region again offers a fresh and helpful overview. The six chapters focus on how Hollywood has portrayed six vital aspects of regional life: land, race, the Civil War, feuds, women, and coal. “Movie-Made Appalachia is an important addition to the growing scholarship on representation, cinema, and Appalachia. John C. Inscoe's particular perspective as a historian situates his readings of films in a deep context that moves beyond Hollywood. Guiding readers through central topics and moments in Appalachian history, Inscoe provides depth of analysis and connections between related films. An important contribution to the field."-Meredith McCarroll. “With Movie-Made Appalachia, John Inscoe has opened the door for thorough analysis of regionally relevant films that have often been overlooked for full critical treatment. Inscoe's work deserves much appreciation for its historical contextualization of film representation of Appalachian people and culture."-J. W. Williamson.

The Opioid Epidemic and U. S. Culture: Expression, Art, and Politics in an Age of Addiction edited by Travis D. Stimeling. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2020. 289 pages with an Index and photos. Several essays have their own notes. Trade paperback

Yes, the editor of this book on the opioid epidemic is a professor of musicology at West Virginia University who has written several books on country, bluegrass, and old-time music. So, what’s going on? In one sentence this book is about how users, recovered users, counselors and activists have marshalled their creativity to respond to the crisis. For example, “Turning the Blood of Appalachia’s Opioid Epidemic into Ink” is one of the essays here that examines the literary output of addiction. And two essays look at rap and hip hop’s response. “A wholly unique and timely approach to understanding the ways that opioids have become entangled with the lives of users and of US culture at large, and a needed complement to public health, sociological, and criminological approaches to this particular problem.”-- Travis Linnemann.

Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia by Elizabeth Catte. Cleveland, Ohio: Belt Publishing, 2021. 199 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

Many know the author, Elizabeth Catte, from her first book, What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia. This book, too, is a plain-spoken and direct polemic. The point is that eugenics and the involuntary sterilization of 8,000 people in Virginia between the years 1927 and 1979 is a manifestation of America’s racist and classist heritage and contemporary crisis. Elizabeth Catte grew up and has lived much of her adult life in Staunton, Virginia, where the site of much sterilization, Western State, now serves as an upscale hotel with condominiums. "In a lacerating analysis of the links between economic policies and eugenicist thought, . . .this provocative and impeccably argued history reveals how traumas of the past inform the inequalities of today." ―Publishers Weekly, starred review. "Pure America exposes Virginia’s shameful past, but it also highlights how much the present continues to be stamped in its image. ...Catte’s dive into the houses eugenics built demonstrates just how thoroughly and pitilessly a certain kind of capital-backed white knowing shapes the country’s built environment to this day."―Ellen Wayland-Smith. “A well-told, richly contextualized investigation of an appalling episode in American history."―Kirkus Reviews, starred review. "Catte did not come to play. This is historical research at its most compelling and its most accessible. Fully academic yet fully human, Catte makes the historical personal, blending the past with her lived experiences in the present.” – Sara Beth West. The author, Elizabeth Catte, is an editor-at-large for West Virginia University Press.

The Road to Blair Mountain: Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield from King Coal by Charles B. Keeney. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2021. 313 pages with an Index, Notes, Glossary and photos. Trade paperback.

Much larger than the January 6th, 2021, assault on the U. S. Capitol by supporters of Donald J. Trump attempting to prevent the election of his successor, the Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed uprising in the United States since the Civil War. It happened from August 25 to September 2, 1921, and involved some 10,000 union miners confronting 3,000 lawmen in an attempt to unionize all of West Virginia’s coal mines. Perhaps as many as 100 deaths and many times more arrests occurred. Then from 2009 until 2018 another Battle of Blair Mountain occurred. This time it was fought to place the battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places and thus0 prevent the mountain from being utterly destroyed by mountain-top removal coal mining. One of the union leaders of the battle 100 years ago was Frank Keeney, and one of the leaders of the twenty-first century battle was Charles B. Keeney, his great-grandson. He is the author of this book and a history professor at Sothern West Virginia Community College. “Chuck Keeney takes over where his great-grandfather left off a century ago—in a no-holds-barred fight against King Coal and its pursuit of profits over people. Keeney delivers a riveting and propulsive story about a nine-year battle to save sacred ground that was the site of the largest labor uprising in American history. You’ll find yourself rooting for Keeney from beginning to end. He unveils a powerful playbook on successful activism that will inspire countless others for generations to come.”-- Eric Eyre. “This book connects to work on twentieth-century labor history, but it is more than that. It is an insider’s thoughts on regional identity and activism as well as a reassessment of how people see Appalachia in the popular mind. When Charles Keeney speaks directly to the reader and offers advice, it resonates in a powerful and present way.” -- Steven E. Nash.

Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians: 20th Anniversary Edition by Donald Edward Davis. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, a revised 2020 edition of a 2000 imprint. 320 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, and photos. Trade paperback.

Nothing accentuates the importance of a book in the literary cannon more than an anniversary edition, something practically unknown in the canon of Appalachian non-fiction. But few books so richly deserve such an honor as our one and only environmental history. This book is comprehensive. It begins with the first written portrayals of the region by members of the DeSota expedition who observed a mountain region inhabited by what are now called natives of the Mississippian culture. The next chapter considers the period of Spanish influence, then Cherokee, and then European frontier inhabitants. The next chapters concern Antebellum Appalachia and then the more contemporary landscape. “Where There Are Mountains is an impressively researched and persuasively argued environmental history of Appalachia. . . . It is a fresh and original piece of work.”-- Ronald L. Lewis. “[A] well-written narrative that is readily accessible to general readers. One can easily understand why this work won an award for outstanding writing on the Southern environments. . . . [T]his book remains the single best introduction to the subject for general readers and undergraduate students, so the paperback edition is welcome.”-- Mississippi Quarterly. The author, Donald Edward Davis, served on the faculty at Dalton State University for several years and is now an independent scholar residing in Washington, D.C.

The York Patrol: The Real Story of Alvin York and the Unsung Heroes Who Made Him World War I’s Most Famous Soldier by James Carl Nelson. New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2021. 269 pages with an Index, Maps, Bibliography, Sources, and photos. Hardback in dust jacket.

On October 8, 1918, Alvin York and sixteen other American soldiers, comprising the York Patrol of this book’s title, ventured behind German lines in France’s Argonne Forest. Eleven survived. Sergeant Alvin York, of Pall Mall in Tennessee’s Appalachian Mountains, killed two dozen German soldiers and captured 132 along with 35 machine gun nests. This book, unlike the many others dealing with Sergeant York, emphasizes York as a member of this patrol and the larger expeditionary force, thirteen of whom received Medals of Honor. This book provides fascinating details about both his comrades and about York himself. It gives the most attention to Alvin York, providing a balanced view that considers the claims of his critics, unlike many previous treatments.  "Alvin York's story has never been told better. With riveting detail and fast-paced drama, The York Patrol is a must read."  -- Mitchell Yockelson. “James Carl Nelson offers a well-crafted account of the exploit that earned York the Medal of Honor, while also crediting the other men—unjustly forgotten—who also performed deeds of valor alongside him that day. An important and exciting book." -- Edward G. Lengel. This is the fourth book on World War I by James Carl Nelson. Formerly a staff writer for the Miami Herald, he now lives in Minneapolis.


The Moonlight School: A Novel by Suzanne Woods Fisher. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Revell/ Baker Publishing Group, 2021. 320 page. Trade paperback.

The history behind this Christian historical romance is that in 1911 Cora Wilson Stewart (1875-1958), the daughter of a Rowan County, Kentucky, doctor and teacher, became school superintendent there. She opened what she called Moonlight Schools. On moonlight nights, country schools were open so that adults could receive literacy training. The first night over 1200 people, aged 18 to 80 appeared. The protagonist of this novel is a cousin of Cora Wilson Stewart, who had grown up in Kentucky’s Bluegrass and was unfamiliar with mountain life until she arrived to be Cora’s stenographer. "A captivating story with rich history and engaging characters who pull at your heartstrings. If you like fascinating history mixed with great storytelling the way I do, you'll love The Moonlight Schools."--Ann H. Gabhart. "An unforgettable story about love and the transforming power of words and community. Deeply moving and uplifting!"--Laura Frantz. The author, Suzanne Woods Fisher, has published over 30 books, mostly novels, but also non-fiction books about the Amish. She lives in California


Woodsmoke: Poems by Wayne Caldwell. Durham, North Carolina: Blair/Carolina Wren, 2021. 81 pages. Trade paperback.

“Woodsmoke” is an ideal title for a book of poetry whose meanings are extensive and deep. Nothing is more ethereal than woodsmoke, yet nothing stands more concretely for honest labor than preparing wood to burn, and no greater connection exists between mankind and nature than deriving warmth from trees. Nothing is more heartwarming than a wood fire.  When I published a poem by Wayne Caldwell entitled “Woodsmoke” in the Fall 2011 issue of Appalachian Heritage, I had no idea how that poem itself would evolve or how it would become the title poem of a collection. I’m proud to have played a small part because this book is engaging, enchanting, and endearing. Most of the poems are in the voice of Posey Green, an old mountain man, a widower, with deep roots in the North Carolina mountains in the shadow of Mount Pisgah. Scattered amongst them are a few poems in the voice of Susan McFall, a mainstream woman whose husband deserts her for a younger woman and who exacts enough revenge in the divorce settlement to buy a beautiful piece of land adjoining Posey Green’s place and to build a cabin there. This juxtaposition of the two, both essentially condescending towards one another, provides both anchor and tension to the collection. “The beauty of Woodsmoke is that it gives us the pleasures of both poetry and prose as it unveils not only the story of one man’s life but the story of a whole culture .. . Woodsmoke is an absolute delight.” – Ron Rash. “Skeptical, thoughtful, funny, proud, and humble, Posey Green tells the most telling truths. I read this volume through, then read it again. For dessert.” – Fred Chappell. “This collection touches on the common threads that bind us all together.” – Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle. “Sit in a quiet place, preferably in front of a woodfire, take deep breaths, and listen to Posey Green. His voice is a beautiful elegy for a southern Appalachian language and mindset almost gone.” – Charles Frazier. Wayne Caldwell was born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, and returned there after a career as an English professor. He is the author of two outstanding novels, Cataloochee (2007) and Requiem by Fire (2010).