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February 2022 Reviews

February 2022 Reviews


Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America: A Personal Education by Paul Salstrom. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2021. 232 pages with an Index of Names, an Appendix: List of Persons, and a Bibliography. Trade paperback.

Paul Salstrom’s alternative to mainstream America is local self-sufficiency dependent upon neighborly networking and mutual aid as practiced in Lincoln County, West Virginia, where he owns land and has lived a few times for a few months. Salstrom envisions a coming together of those who Jason Strange in Shelter from the Machine: Homesteaders in the Age of Capitalism calls the hippies and the hicks: those going back to the land – often after many generations – and those who never left but maintain an old-fashioned lifestyle. They both practice what Steven Stoll in Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia insists on calling the “makeshift economy” because he never met a subsistence farmer who wasn’t willing to do a little something for cash. This idea pre-dates Strange and Stoll and Salstrom by at least half a century. I remember Paul Goodman’s keynote to the Council of the Southern Mountains Annual Conference in 1966 audaciously entitled “Decent Poverty,” delivered to an audience sprinkled with astonished “War on Poverty” workers! Salstrom’s argument is the major theme of his book, but note the sub-title: A Personal Education. The book is basically a memoir – though he never mentions his career as an Indiana professor – that is laced with opinion pieces that range well beyond his thesis. Do beware. Salstrom is a non-conformist, and this book basically smashes to smithereens all the edicts of mainstream editors. Thus, it will probably be refreshing to some and maddening to others. Instead of zonking in on a few characters so the reader can experience some continuity and depth, this book of 212 pages before his “List of Persons” actually includes about 100 people on that list! And Salstrom essentially never shows, but rather tells his story. Editors must have used up all their urges for writers to be cinematic on other authors and got burnt out before they tackled Salstrom. “In this interesting memoir, Paul Salstrom contends that America’s culture of individualism threatens the destruction of the environment, the food and energy supply, and democracy itself. The best alternative, he argues, is a retreat to the traditional rural Appalachian culture of small farms, self-reliant neighbors, and a low-cash reciprocal economy. . . . [This book] gives us much to ponder about the future.” – Ronald L. Lewis. Paul Salstrom is the author of Appalachia’s Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region’s Economic History 1730-1940 (2006) and a long-time history professor at St. Mary’s of the Woods College.

Endless Caverns: An Underground Journey into the Show Caves of Appalachia by Douglas Reichert Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, a 2022 paperback reprint of a 2018 hardback release. 218 pages with a General Index, and Index of Caves and Caverns, Note on Sources, figures, maps, and photos. Trade paperback.

You don’t have to be a spelunker or even give a hoot about caves to relish this book. Powell places these 36 caverns in their historical, literary, and environmental context with an emphasis on the people who developed and visited these caves, from Cormac McCarthy to P. T. Barnum. He limits his purview to the Great Appalachian Valley that stretches from the Potomac Valley in Maryland, through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, into the Holston and Tennessee Valley’s in Tennessee down where the Tennessee Valley enters Alabama, including caves in the mountains that border these valleys. “Reichert Powell is an engaging and often hilarious writer with a passion for show caves and all of the people that make them possible. He is a meticulous historian, an acute and often daring ethnographer, but most of all an audacious and creative storyteller.” --West Virginia History. Reichert Powell’s research is authoritative, and his love for the topic radiates from the book.” – Scott Huler. “Endless Caverns is a personal odyssey of the author's travels through Appalachian show caves. A well-written book that will appeal to readers interested in Americana, the development and management of show caves, and the history of the Appalachian region” –Choice. “Powell leaves no caving-related topic unexplored. . . . Reading the book was like talking to an acquaintance who is able to share his love of a particular topic and make us love it too. Anyone interested in the cultural history of the Southern Appalachian region, or anyone with even the most remote interest in caves, should pick up this book” --Journal of Appalachian Studies.

From Batboy to Congressman: Thirty Years in the U.S. House by John J. Duncan, Jr. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2021. 149 pages with a Foreword by J. Caroline DeBerry, afterwords by Bill Kauffman and David Allen Martin, an Index, and photos. Trade paperback.

From 1988, when he won a special election to replace his father who died in office, until 2019, John J. Duncan was the Republican who represented Tennessee’s safely Republican Second Congressional District in East Tennessee. His most distinctive vote was as one of six Republicans who voted against the Iraq War. Chapters in this memoir cover, “Early Life,” “Lawyer and Judge,” “First Campaign,” “Congressional Stories,” “Celebrity Stories,”
“Sports Celebrities,” “Presidential Stories,” and “Life after Congress.”  “Conservatives spent years idolizing Bush’s foreign policy  . . . and then Paul Ryan’s promise for  . . . balanced budgets. Instead, they should have been paying attention to Jimmy Duncan. Quietly, and all this time, they had in front of them a man who showed bravery, conviction, and dedication to the idea of limited government at home and abroad.” – Ryan Girdusky.

In The True Blue’s Wake: Slavery and Freedom Among the Families of Smithfield Plantation by Daniel B. Thorp. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2022. 190 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, Appendices, photos, maps, documents, and charts. Hardback in dust jacket.

The True Blue was the slave ship upon which the first sixteen enslaved Africans traveled across the Atlantic before they were purchased in 1759 by William Preston to become workers on his Smithfield Plantation at Blacksburg, Virginia. Thanks to author Thorp, we understand much of the context of what this book chronicles. His 2017 hardback, reprinted as a trade paperback in 2019, Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow thoroughly covers all of Montgomery County, Virginia, where the Smithfield Plantation was located. Approximately the first half of his new book covers the period before emancipation, but the second half follows the formerly enslaved and their progeny into the present. “In the True Blue’s Wake is an ambitious undertaking, stunningly achieved. Daniel Thorp’s impressive research puts living flesh on the bare bones the archives have to offer. This wholly original study leaves us with a portrait of the patience and determination – and frequently heroism – it took for those Black Virginians at Smithfield, and their descendants, to survive and leave slavery in the wake of their own march to freedom.” William C. Davis. “Written with great empathy, Thorp’s powerful narrative connects the fascinating story of an enslaved community with the pioneering movements of freedpeople and their descendants.” – Warren Milteer, Jr. The author, Daniel B. Thorp is a history professor at Virginia Tech, right there in Montgomery County, Virginia.

Lifting Every Voice: My Journey from Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power by William B. Robertson with Becky Hatcher Crabtree. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022. 197 pages with a Foreword by Linwood Holton, an Index, Bibliography, Appendix, and photos. Hardback in dust jacket.

In 1919, the NAACP dubbed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the “Negro national anthem,” and it is still viewed as the Black national anthem. In 1970, William B. Robertson, the author of this memoir, saw his voice lifted and he began to sing when Republican Governor Linwood Holton hired him as the first Black person to serve as an advisor to a Virginia governor. He went on to serve the Reagan, Bush, Nixon, Ford, and Carter Presidential Administrations. He grew up in Roanoke, graduated from the HBCU, Bluefield State just across the West Virginia line. It’s library now is named for him. Robertson earned a graduate degree from Radford University. He died at the age of 88 in 2021, so he never held this book in his hands, and he wrote it when age perhaps did not help him to always make clear the progression of his life. “Civil rights literature has not always done a good job of showing how the protests of the sixties marked the beginning of the dismantling of state-sanctioned discrimination, not the end. Bill Robertson’s invaluable memoir, on the other hand, chronicles those changes, from the grass roots to the highest government channels.” Andrew B. Lewis.

Living Queer History: Remembrance and Belonging in a Southern City by Gregory Samantha Rosenthal. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2021. 278 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, and illustrations. Trade paperback.

To my knowledge, this is the first queer history of an Appalachian city – Roanoke, Virginia. Based on the author’s forty interviews with LGBTQ elders and leadership in a community-based queer history project, this combination memoir and ethnography tells the story of the author’s coming out and then transitioning as a transgender woman. “A brilliantly blended book that, much like queerness itself, transcends genre and blurs boundaries. Using memoir to look outward and history to look inward, Rosenthal makes theory concrete, finds the past in the present, and brings Roanoke's overlooked queer demimonde to beautiful life.” --Samantha Allen. “Carefully attentive to the ways in which race, ethnicity, class, and gender (among other identities and power systems) speak to and with LGBTQ identities of various stripes, the book delivers a persuasive challenge to continuing presumptions that the South has never been a space or place in which LGBTQ people or cultures or communities could emerge, let alone survive and thrive.” –Leisa Meyer. “A moving and necessary account of the way making history remakes ourselves, Living Queer History asks what it means for a queer person to have a place and to take up space in a straight world. With keen insight into their own queer life, Samantha Rosenthal combines personal narrative, oral history, activism, and queer theory to offer a fuller understanding of queer belonging."-Jenn Shapland. “In Living Queer History, Samantha Rosenthal revels in the wondrous history of Roanoke's storied queer past and present. At once deeply personal and political, this book reminds us that the South is not just home to sexual dissidents but is also a place of transition and transformative queer world-making.” --E. Patrick Johnson. The author, Gregory Samantha Rosenthal is a history professor at Roanoke College.

Turning of Days: Lessons from Nature, Season and Spirit by Hannah Anderson. Chicago: Moody, 2021. 170 pages illustrated by Nathan Anderson, and with [foot]Notes. 8” X 8.5” trade paperback with cover flaps.

In her introductory “From the Author,” Hannah Anderson tells us readers that God reveals Himself in two ways: with his words in Scripture and in his creation, nature. Of course, the irony is that Anderson will use words in this book with the goal of presenting what she views as God’s lessons in nature and the seasons from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The middle four of the six chapters delve into the four seasons. For each season, Anderson supplies short beautifully illustrated lessons she finds in particular manifestations of nature followed by scripture citations. "This book is an invitation to awaken the senses—sight, smell, touch, and hearing. It bids you leave behind the noise, the rush, the unforgiving concrete jungles and find a park or garden and sit awhile. Hannah weaves ancient biblical truths like parables, around her keen observations of the natural world her words a paintbrush displaying divine purpose and patterns. Nathan’s gentle illustrations of the outdoor world they both evidently love make this book a garment of beauty, woven by skilled words, colored by skilled artists combining to bring awe and wonder that inspire worship." –Guy and Heather Miller. "It’s amazing how much we can learn from nature, if we have the eyes to look, and the patience to ponder. Hannah Anderson’s beautiful meditations on creation help us appreciate the wonder that is all around us, and the unique insights creation provides into the character of God and the life of faith. Reading this book is like going on a long, refreshing walk in the woods—it nourishes your soul in ways you can’t fully articulate." –Gavin Ortlund. "As soon as I finished reading Turning of Days, I went back to start reading it again. There is an abundance of searching, patient wisdom here, drawn from things we always see but rarely notice, and written in beautiful prose. Read, and enjoy." –Andrew Wilson. The author, Hannah Anderson, is the author of several books of devotions. She and her husband are raising three children.


Blue Fire by John Gilstrap. New York: Kensington Books, 2022. 336 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

“Blue Fire” is Ortho, West Virginia’s code phrase for imminent danger. Nuclear winter has destroyed civilization as we know it, but Victoria Emerson is running a small town in the mountains. The danger is that a heavily armed gang of former National Guardsmen, is coming for the precious provisions that Ortho has managed to squirrel away. “Gilstrap’s engrossing sequel to 2021’s Crimson Phoenix finds former U.S. Congresswoman Victoria Emerson continuing to organize. . . . Power struggles among surviving U.S. government officials hunkered down in D.C.-area bunkers add to the drama. Fans of doomsday military thrillers will delight in the resilience of Gilstrap’s family of preppers and their quest for survival on their terms. Readers will eagerly await the next installment.” –Publishers Weekly. The author, John Gilstrap, is a best-selling author of numerous books, including Against All Enemies that won the award for best paperback original in 2015 given by the International Thriller Writers!

Renewed for Murder by Victoria Gilbert. New York: Crooked Lane, 2021. 343 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

This is Gilbert’s sixth Blue Ridge Library mystery, all with clever titles, and all eagerly awaited after the first. Taylorsford, Virginia’s, library director, Amy Webber, and her new husband, dancer Richard Muir, attempt in this novel to exonerate their friend Zelda Shoemaker when a body turns up in her gazebo. They fear that if they do not find the culprit, others may die. “The lovingly rendered characters continue to steal the show in the heroine’s sixth case.”—Kirkus Reviews. “Well-drawn characters.”—Publishers Weekly. “Highly recommended for community library "Mystery/Suspense" collections, [and] cozy mystery lover.”—Midwest Book Review. The author, herself a librarian, was raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, and currently lives in North Carolina.


A Walk to the Spring House by Sue Weaver Dunlap. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Iris Press, 2021. 108 pages. Trade paperback.

Sue Weaver Dunlap’s life has revolved around walking to both literal and figurative spring houses – walks that have evolved from chores to respites over the years. A retired teacher, she once sought to encourage creativity roiling up from deep places. As a farmer, she had been dependent upon water and other necessities emitting from both ground and sky. As a poet, the author at this juncture of three collections, words, wise and beautiful, have emanated from her life experience deeply grounded in the Smoky Mountains, where she lives on land not far from an entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “This gifted poet captures Appalachian humankind as it carries its geography in its genetic code, voice and place are inseparable, and each generation is an embodiment of all that comes before, all the heart, hurt, history, and homage. These poems sing to the beauty of life fully lived against a ragged, raging, and glorious land, and the tender intimacies that run through like arteries and veins. All the while, personal and family history is vividly rendered and respected. The rock, the creek, the body, the work are one beautiful thing always.” -Darnell Arnoult. “This surefooted account of Appalachian life in transition rings with faith and deep mourning. Sue Weaver Dunlap documents the rituals of making do, getting by, and ultimately, letting go-all in a landscape that is by turns glorious and harsh. She grounds us in plant and place names, native rock deposits, and the tools of farming and cooking. Ultimately, this musical homage to family leaves us wiser.” -Georgann Eubanks. “Images of gardens, the wild profusion of mountain wildflowers, and ‘frost glistened tips of grass blades’ on an early morning amble balance the pain of cemeteries where babies are buried, the difficulties of life for a father whose picket-line stand has led to blackballing by prospective employers. Readers will long remember taking a walk to the spring house with Sue Weaver Dunlap.” -Connie Jordan Green.