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January 2018 Reviews

January 2018 Reviews


Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 36 un-numbered pages Illustrated with full-page, full-color drawings by Frank Morrison. Oversized hardback in dust jacket, $17.99.

In the first week of May, 1963, after Martin Luther King had written his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” but a year before the Civil Rights Law was signed, massive Civil Rights protests by adults in Birmingham, Alabama, seemed to be slowly dissipating. After spirited debate and considerable trepidation, the decision was made to allow local youths to skip school and march by themselves. They responded enthusiastically, and their numbers swelled into the thousands. Sheriff Bull Conner responded with fire hoses, dogs, night sticks, and mass jailings. Huge numbers were jailed. On May 10th, a settlement was reached when Birmingham leaders agreed to release all the children who remained in jail, not press charges against them, and begin to de-segregate downtown facilities. Later the Birmingham School Board voted to expel the children who missed school to protest. A court eventually voided that order. This picture book does not focus on historical facts, but it does provide the basic context while focusing on the experiences of individual children. The role of these children was crucial to the progress of Civil Rights in Birmingham and the whole country. This book is an inspiring and important tribute to the courage of these children. Hopefully it will be widely distributed and read and inspire another generation of young people. The author, Monica Clark-Robinson, is a white woman who works as a children’s librarian in Arkansas and sometimes as an actor and professional reader of audio productions. The illustrator, Frank Morrison is a Black man who first attracted attention as a New Jersey graffiti artist and break-dancer. Now he has settled into an Atlanta life as an award-winning artist and illustrator.


Mud Mare by Christina St. Clair. Ashland, Kentucky: xyzwords, unstated, but 2017. 176 pages. Trade paperback, $11.50.

Johnda is an Eastern Kentucky teen who feels like her life is collapsing around her. Her father has abandoned his wife and daughter. Her best friend has moved far away. Her mom has little time or money for her. What starts to turn her life around is that she finds an abandoned horse while on a long bicycle ride. The horse is not friendly, but Johnda knows that she must be patient and starts by letting the horse get used to her presence. She takes her homework to the field and works on it leaning against a tree. The author, Christina St. Claire, grew up in England, but has lived in Eastern Kentucky for several years. She has written three YA fantasy novels, a short series of books with a mystical twist, a book of spiritual reflections, and she plans for Mud Mare to be the start of another series.



Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina: A Guide to Music Sites, Artists, and Traditions of the Mountains and Foothills by Fred Fussell with Steve Kruger. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, a 1918 “Second Edition, Revised and Updated,” of a 2013 release which was preceded by a 2003 book by Fussell alone entitled Blue Ridge Music Trails: Finding a Place in the Circle. 279 pages (five less than the last edition!) with a cd (with 6 more songs), color and black and white photographs, a map and an Index. Trade paperback, $22.00 (less expensive than either of the earlier editions!).

Chapters of this book are organized by each of the 27 Western North Carolina counties, and there are attractive sidebars with interviews, profiles, and short historical essays. For example the chapter on Wilkes County begins with a profile of the Merlefest and then features an African American musician, a duo of German natives, a local female performer, and a Wilkes County native who plays and makes instruments. It also includes features on legendary local characters immortalized by songs and features on two music museums. Fred Fussell lives in Columbus, Georgia, where he has worked as an exhibits curator, documentary photographer and arts programming consultant. Steve Kruger plays the fiddle and banjo. He lives in Giles County, Virginia, and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. His special interest is in medicinal plants.


Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of Appalachia by Jennifer McGaha. Napierville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2018. 357 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99.

This is a memoir that immediately pulls you in. It is the story of a couple who were leading a nice upper middle class life that fell apart so badly they had to foreclose on their home. Their only option was to rent something cheap, so they ended up in a Western North Carolina holler near Canton in an old farmhouse. The hardest thing for Jennifer McGaha was not having a hot water heater, and the easiest adjustment for her was not having a television. Clearly the most endearing aspect of her new liffe was dealing with the dozen or so goats that they eventually acquired. At the time the book was published, the couple was still living the good life in this holler in many ways closer to the lives of their ancestors than their former neighbors.


The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018. 125 pages with a 51-page Introduction by Catherine Venable Moore, two pictures by Nancy Naumburg, and a map by the author. Trade paperback with a cover that features flaps like a dust jacket, $17.99.

This book offers a powerful and informative perspective on America’s worst industrial disaster: the building of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia in the early 1930s. It resulted in over 700 worker deaths, mostly from the effects of ingesting silicon dust. The vast majority of the dead were black men recruited from the South. About half of this book is a reprint of “The Book of the Dead” a portion of U.S. 1, a book of poems by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) published in 1938 by Covici Friede. These compelling and disturbing poems incorporate many quotes from testimony by victims at hearings held in January of 1936 by a U,S. House Labor Sub-committee investigating the tragedy. They also reflect Rukeyser’s experience personally investigating the site of the tragedy in the Spring of 1936 along with her photographer friend, Nancy Naumburg. The title of this portion of this poetry book, “The Book of the Dead,” reflects not only how deadly the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel construction was, but also Rukeyser’s visit to an exhibit by that name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dealing with Ancient Egypt. The title of that whole poetry book, U.S. 1, was designed to offer readers a taste of America’s grim Depression-era realities to contrast with the mainstream perspective of the Federal Writer’s Project’s book: U.S. One: Maine to Florida, a highway travel guide published the same year. Rukeyser’s trip to West Virginia was followed a few years later by trips to the trial of the “Scottsboro Boys” in Alabama and to Spain at the beginning of Francisco Franco’s fascist takeover of that country. Her activism attracted a 118-page report by the FBI of its spying on her. The other half of this book consists of an introduction by Catherin Venable Moore who lives near the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. She calls attention to Rukeyser’s poem “Praise to the Committee.” The Committee was the group of Black women and men who actively resisted the practices of the Union Carbide subsidiary that employed the tunnel workers without offering them protection. The Committee sponsored lawsuits, legislation, relief, and efforts to deal with Fayette County Sheriff C. A. Conley, the hotel owner they considered the head of “the town ring.” The name of George Robinson, a leader of The Committee, also appears on a list of a small portion of those who died that was smuggled out of a company facility and that Moore found at the Gauley Bridge Historical Society. Moore also relates the horrifying pleas of Leon Brewer an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration who visited Vanetta the town of shacks created to house Black workers. Pictures of both the town and the kitchen of George Robinson taken by Nancy Naumburg are included in this book along with the partial list of those who died, their race, and their place of burial. This is truly a crucial book for anyone who cares about our region, despite the fact that it is really horrifying.


Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow by Daniel B. Thorp. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2017. 294 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, graphs, maps and photos. Hardback in dust jacket, $39.95.

This book closely examines the experiences of African-Americans in Montgomery County, Virginia, (where Christiansburg and Blacksburg are located) during the 40 years after Emancipation. It was during this time that African-Americans established enduring families, businesses, and other institutions needed to navigate within the relative freedom of their newfound status. “Facing Freedom is a rich, humane, and inspiring story of accomplishment in the face of poverty and constraint. The research is ingenious, the conclusions powerful and persuasive, using one place to illuminate the lives of many.” – Edward L. Ayers. “Facing Freedom offers a detailed look at the lives of Montgomery County’s African Americans as they voted, fought for schools, built churches bought land, and experienced the heartbreak of the arrival of Jim Crow. Rejecting or expanding upon a host of existing scholarly conclusions based on scattered sources, Daniel Thorp draws on rich local archives which offer an unbroken record of fifty years of tumultuous interracial politics and black community-building. A lucid and moving contribution to the history of Virginia and southern Appalachia. – Jane Dailey. The author, Daniel B. Thorp, is a history professor and administrator at Virginia Tech in Montgomery County.


The Life of Mikey: A Memoir by Michael K. Willis. Asheville, North Carolina: LiberLibri, 2017. 288 pages. Trade paperback, $16.95.

Mikey’s life takes us on a tour of Western North Carolina from Maggie Valley in Haywood County where he was born into a large local family, to rural Macon County where his father pastored another church and where Mikey came to view him as abusive, to Asheville in 1962 when he was ten years old, and finally to Western Carolina University. The rest of his life has been spent in Tennessee where he got his masters in public administration from UT and went on to a career in county government and hospital administration in Cleveland, Tennessee.



Under a Cloudless Sky by Chris Fabry. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House, 2017. 399 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99.

Esau is a man in the Bible who has become synonymous with disregard for what is sacred in favor of immediate gratification. Thus people in coal mining communities used the term “Esau script” to describe the money that women in coal camps received when desperation forced them to sell their bodies at the company store, often when faced with the eviction of their remaining families after their husbands had been killed in mine accidents. Those who researched and preserved the Whipple Company Store in Fayette County, West Virginia, were the first known to have openly revealed this terrible truth of life in some company mining towns and to preserve this truth in a historical building. I believe that when I was the editor of Appalachian Heritage, I was the first to print an article that openly dealt with this terrible practice of coal operators. It was written by Wes Harris and Mike Kline. Now there is a novel that I believe is the first to openly write of Esau script. The fictional company store at the center of this novel closely resembles the Whipple company store. Perhaps ironically or even appropriately, the novel comes from a Christian publisher. Under a Cloudless Sky is divided into five parts. The first and last parts are set in 1933 and the middle three chapters are set in 2004. The setting during both time periods is primarily a town in the coalfields of West Virginia. In 1933 Ruby and Bean are young best friends despite the fact that one is the daughter of a mine owner and the other of a disgruntled miner. That year several men and a young girl die in the upstairs room of the company store in what comes to be called a massacre. In 2004 Ruby is an old woman living far away but determined to get involved in the controversy swirling around her hometown as a coal company is trying to buy the whole company town from individual home owners to increase coal production and open a Company Store Museum. The author, Chris Fabry, was born and raised in West Virginia and graduated from Marshall University there. He has published over 70 books for all ages, including five that have won Christy Awards. He hosts the daily program, Chris Fabry Live on Moody Radio, and is a frequent guest on other Christian radio programs. He now lives in Arizona.


False Witness by Andrew Grant. New York, Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House, 2018. 302 pages, Hardback in dust jacket, $27.00.   

The author of this book, Andrew Grant, grew up in Birmingham, England, and worked there in theater and telecommunications. He now lives on a wildlife preserve in Wyoming. This is his seventh book and his third in the Detective Cooper Devereaux Thriller series. It is set in Birmingham, Alabama, and Devereaux is chasing down “The Birthday Killer” who kills on the 21st birthday of his female victims.