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June 2021 Reviews

June 2021 Reviews


Education in Black and White: Myles Horton and the Highlander Center’s Vision of Social Justice by Stephen Preskill. Oakland, University of California Press, 2021. 369 pages with an Index, Works Cited, Notes, and photographs. Hardback in dust jacket.

This is one of the most important books of this decade. I remember the Tennessee billboards that proclaimed, “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School” with a picture showing King at Highlander’s 25th Anniversary celebration in 1957. Neither were Communists, of course, but those who opposed Kind and Highlander could not attack them with truths. Highlander was founded by Myles Horton and Don West in 1932, but West left within a year, and Myles Horton stayed with Highlander until his death in 1990. Myles Horton was first and foremost a listener and facilitator who brought together ordinary people working to improve their lives, so he became a fixture first of the CIO work to organize labor in the South, and then the civil rights movement, and then Appalachian social movements. This is the first book-length study of Myles Horton in twenty-five years, although several previous books are extant, including a dialogue between Horton and Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This book is a biography of Horton with the emphasis on his theory and practice of education. "As a former staff member of Highlander, I had the privilege of learning from and with Myles Horton over two decades. This well-researched book captures the Highlander Center's unique approach to using popular education to deepen democracy and strengthen struggles for social justice; a story that is both instructive and inspirational for our times." --John Gaventa. "At a moment when democratic traditions are under assault, this book could hardly be more timely. The story of Myles Horton and Highlander reminds us that the late twentieth-century movements for social justice were often movements of democratic aspirations, committed to developing the untapped potential of the oppressed." -Charles M. Payne. The author, Stephen Preskill, is a writing consultant at Columbia University. Of this, his fifth book, he maintains, “writing this book was, in some ways, the dream of a lifetime.  I first learned of Myles Horton when my father, who knew of my passion for education, sent me a videocassette recording of Bill Moyers' interview with Myles called, ‘The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly.’  I've taught about Myles for decades and learned so much from his life and commitment to social justice.  It is an honor to be the author of this book.”

Five Star Trails: Knoxville: 40 Spectacular Hikes in the Heart of East Tennessee by Johnny Molloy. Birmingham, Alabama: Menasha Ridge Press, a 2021 2nd Edition of a 2011 release. Index, Appendices, and full-color maps and photos throughout. Trade paperback.

Ten of these trails are within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, chosen as the best of the 800 miles of Park trails, but the other 30 – in Knoxville and then the four compass points – you can get to without traffic congestion either on the way there or on the trail. This book has so many cool features. I love the two pages of Recommended Hikes, which gives five or six trails in twelve well-chosen categories, including “Best for Dogs,” “Human History.” “Geology,” and even “Best for Seclusion.” The author, Johnny Molloy, lived for twenty years in Knoxville, and now lives in Johnson City, Tennessee. As the author of more than 50 books, mostly guide-books of various kinds, he is basically the master of the genre.

Kin: A Memoir by Shawna Kay Rodenberg. New York: Bloomsbury, 2021. 330 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

The fad in memoir these days is to skip around all over the place, and I don’t like it. But I’m glad this memoir was written and found a publisher, which it probably would not have found as an autobiography. The title establishes this memoir as quintessentially Appalachian, as we are known for placing kinship ties above all else. And it also clarifies that Shawna Kay Rodenberg is more greatly concerned with the impact of her kinfolks, even generations back, than herself or her Letcher County, Kentucky, homeplace. This memoir is exemplary for its drama, its writing style and for its compelling protagonist. “I hope this book will fall into the hands of everyone who has ever swallowed their words, hid their scars, been mocked, laughed at, or ignored. Rodenberg's lyricism, mastery of form, and command of image and metaphor are matched only by the power of her honesty and the precision of her recall. Kin will endure and bring light and warmth to all who encounter this beautiful book.” ―Robert Gipe. “A fascinating memoir. What makes this one special is the way the debut author widens her view to tell the stories of her parents, grandparents, and other relatives, including times before she was born, with as much compassion and realistic detail as she gives her own story . . . a nuanced portrait of a complicated place and people.” ―Booklist (starred review).Kin is highly readable, even in the darkest of its many dark moments. Rodenberg is a gifted writer and brings her setting to life. It is a beautifully written look at resilience and the power of family and place.” ―Bookreporter. "[Rodenberg] intersperses third-person accounts of her mother's life in Kentucky and her father's before he went to Vietnam . . . the alternating chapters provide context and feed Rodenberg's overarching theme about how stories repeat in families, that lineage ‘wasn't about the past, like people often thought, so much as the future.’" - The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The Saga of Li’l Donnie: A Political Satire by Bill Best. Berea, Kentucky: self-published, 2020. 100 pages. Trade paperback.

Bill Best is known not only as one of the first to earn a PhD in Appalachian studies, but also as a consummate tomato farmer. His recent books include Heirloom Seeds: Growing, Eating, Saving and Saving Seeds and  Preserving Taste; Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia, both from university presses. But Best returns to satire – the genre where he first appeared in print in books – for this volume. His first book,  The Tragedy of Platitudinous Piety, satirized ‘60s protesters like myself, but this, his most recent book, turns his wit from left to right as he takes on Donald Trump.

Seeing Like a Commons: Eighty Years of Intentional Community Building and Commons Stewardship in Celo, North Carolina by Joshua Lockyer. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield: 2021. 259 pages with an Index, References and photos. Hardback with pictorial cover.

Yes, eighty years - clearly the Celo Community is one of the longest and strongest attempts at community-centered living in Appalachia, and we all have much to learn from this endeavor, so it is wonderful to have a book about it. At Celo, individuals and families settle on this commonly- owned land without purchasing a plot with the permission of the community of those already settled there, and the community also makes decisions about their community center and the land where no member has settled.  Celo began as the brainstorm of Arthur Morgan who devoted his life to making small communities more vibrant and community minded. Yellow Springs, Ohio, was his primary residence and focus, but he purchased 1,200 acres of land just east of Mt. Mitchell in the South Toe River Valley to establish this community, while purchasing land for his own second home above the valley where the growing season was longer because the frost settles near the river. Morgan was the first Director of the Tennessee Valley Authority where he began to implement his ideas, for example, in TVA’s research station in Norris, Tennessee, which produced papers on topics like the best fruit-bearing trees for a chicken yard. President Roosevelt fired Morgan. Many believe this resulted primarily because he called out prominent Roosevelt-supporting Tennessee politicians for buying land near Norris Dam, the first TVA dam. “Lockyer’s study goes into rich detail about the lives of Celo’s members and how Celo deals with such perennial community issues as decision-making, rule enforcement, new members, interactions with neighbors, and stewardship of natural resources. Seeing Like a Commons is much more than an ethnography, for Lockyer skillfully contextualizes Celo’s goals of creating a more just, resilient, and sustainable world. Lockyer’s hope that Celo can show all of us ‘a different way of living in the belly of the beast’ is sure to be realized in this excellent book.”- Jonathan G. Andelson. “Engaging vignettes, with which Lockyer opens chapters, personalize for the reader the inner workings of Celo’s governance and resolution of interpersonal conflicts. In all, Seeing Like a Commons is ethnography, history, and communal utopian studies at their best.”-- Donald E. Pitzer. The author, Joshua Lockyer, did his PhD dissertation on Celo and teaches anthropology at Arkansas Tech.

Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning by Alan Maimon. Brooklyn, New York: Melville House, 2021. 294 pages with an Index and Notes and a map. Hardback in dust jacket.

What a pleasant surprise. That title, let alone the sub-title, conjures up images of a polemic that disparages a county-seat Eastern Kentucky town and smugly settles on a prediction of a future of doom and despair. The Preface begins the author’s attempt to set the record straight by objecting to the 2016 flurry of stories about Appalachia as the essence of Trump Country.  The author, Alan Maimon, arrived in Hazard, Kentucky, as the Louisville Courier Journal’s Eastern Kentucky reporter in 2000 fresh from a New York Times assignment in Berlin. Slowly he began to appreciate more and more that the forces that exploited and helped define Eastern Kentucky were quintessentially American forces. Later he married an Eastern Kentucky woman, although they now live in New Jersey. Yes, this news-rich and commentary-laden memoir does not shy away from dastardly and violent local politicians, but it does lay the region’s problems squarely on the laps of the pharmaceutical and non-renewable energy giants.   “Twilight in Hazard chronicles the decades of taking that Appalachia has weathered, but it also chronicles the strength and resiliency of the human spirit of those who have been left behind. This book is harrowing, angering, and, most importantly, true.” —Wiley Cash. “In tight, compelling prose, Twilight in Hazard takes us directly to the heart of one of America's most serious problems: the decline of local news. This book, with its indelible sense of place, may break your heart but it may also strengthen our collective resolve to find solutions to this crisis before it is entirely too late.” —Margaret Sullivan. “Alan Maimon is right to make ‘An Appalachian Reckoning’ the subtitle of this wise, compassionate book, where trulyWe gather in our memories and reckon up the cost.’ —Si Kahn.

Wayne Howard, Old-Time Music, the Hammons Family and Mountain Lore by Lewis M. Stern. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2021. 183 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Chapter Notes, and photos. Trade paperback.

A biography of a folklorist? Wayne Howard is not exactly the kind of person who usually is the subject of a biography, but for some that will make this book all the more appealing. A native of Western Kentucky, Howard plays the banjo, engages in banjo repair and restoration and is also a scholar and promoter of the folklore of old-time mountain music. The Hammons family of West Virginia is well-known as a quintessential treasure trove of traditional mountain music, and Wayne Howard gained their confidence and may easily be viewed as the most knowledgeable about their repertoire. The author of this biography is Lewis M. Stern, a claw hammer banjo player who has written for many banjo publications. He lives in Reston,Virginia.



Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch.  New York: Picador/Farrar Straus and Giroux, a 2020 paperback edition of a 2019 release. 292 pages. Trade paperback

This first novel was a finalist for the prestigious Pen America Literary Award, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian fiction. This book follows people who – like almost everyone in Appalachia – are tempted to flee the region. The characters in this novel, however, decide not only to stay, but also to fight to make living conditions here better. The protagonist, Helen, moves to Appalachian Ohio, with her boyfriend to do the back-to-the-land thing, but he quits before the first winter. Neighbors Karen and Lily are expected a boy, so are preparing to leave the Women’s Land Trust, and Helen invites them to live with her. Their son, Perley, rounds out the main four characters. "Remarkable and gripping . . . The story is told in the alternating voices of Helen, Karen, Lily, and Perley, and ffitch navigates their personalities beautifully, creating complex, brilliantly realized characters. As the stakes rise, for both the family and the preservation of the region, the novel skewers stereotypes and offers only a messy, real depiction of people who fully embody the imperative of the novel’s title. This is a stellar novel.―Publishers Weekly, starred review. "A socially conscious story about environment, feminism, and children rights."―Adam Vitcavage. “Madeline ffitch is unafraid of a good fight. Her first novel is a rousing celebration of conflict, in particular the conflict that comes with being a family: unspoken tensions, philosophical disagreements, painful words, messy brawls. Stay and Fight makes the powerful argument that fighting within a family is necessary, formative; it’s the practice that prepares us to fight for our families when the time comes. Hers is the fiercest, wisest book about parenting that I’ve read in a very long time.” ―Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Madeline ffitch got her unique last name from her father, who was born in Great Britain. She wrote a draft of this novel as her doctoral dissertation at Ohio University in Athens which she describes as the nearest town to the small farm where she lives. This earned her a PhD in 2018. In an essay in Granta about her experiences protesting pipeline construction with native people at Standing Rock, she wrote, “… Friends ask me about being a parent who also remains politically involved. They ask me what it’s like to bring my kids with me to demonstrations, meetings and trainings, to breastfeed while facing a cop in riot gear, to be peed on by my baby at a direct-action training, to carry my toddler piggyback while marching through the streets. They want to know what it was like to bring my two young children to Standing Rock.…The idea that political work is for young, idealistic, childless adults is one way to keep such work carefully controlled, to cast it as exceptional, a hobby for the privileged few, when of course it’s neither. It’s ordinary and necessary. So is parenting.”



How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Lessons) by Barbara Kingsolver. New York: Harper/HarperCollins, 2020. 111 pages with Notes. Hardback in dust jacket.

Barbara Kingsolver was raised in Carlisle, Kentucky, by her mother and her father who was a physician. Her first love was music, and she was accepted by DePauw University on a music scholarship. When she discovered, in her words,  that “classical pianists compete for six job openings a year, and the rest of [them] play ‘Blue Moon’ in a hotel lobby,” she switched her major to biology. After graduation and a year in France, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she lived for two decades and became a science writer and then, in 1988 burst onto the literary scene with her novel Bean Trees.  In 1994, she moved to a farm in the upper Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in Washington County where she runs a restaurant and souvenir shop close to the Glade Springs Exit on I-81. Among her many honors, she has been awarded the National Humanities Medal and the Orange Prize in Fiction, an international award based in Great Britain. This book of poetry is her first book since 1993 that has not landed on the New York Times best-seller list. The poem, “Ghost Pipes” celebrates this flower forsaking chlorophyll for sustenance from tree roots and compares that choice to her own choice to walk away from her first marriage and a steady paycheck. Her delightful “how to” poems often end with a rejection of the title, like “How to Drink Water When There Is Wine,” which ends with the line, “Now I have lived long and know better.” “How to Shear a Sheap,” ends with two lines: “That should work/ It doesn’t.”  “Telling a moment is Kingsolver’s apt description of what poetry does, and it’s what she does, stunningly, in How to Fly (In Ten Thousand Easy Lessons) How to Fly is language and observation at their most succulent, moments seized at their peak of ripeness.” --Jonathan Miles. "A gorgeous collection of poetry...These poems unplug from TV and social media and the outrage of the moment and turn our attention to the immediate and the everlasting, human intimacy and the power and mystery of nature." - Tampa Bay Times. "Kingsolver brings her gifts of observation and reflection to How to Fly...For a reader wanting to escape, to fly while grounded, this book is a map that offers surprise and delight." – BookPage.



A Twilight Reel: Stories by Michael Amos Cody. Asheville, North Carolina: Pisgah Press, 2021. 292 pages. Trade paperback.

Michael Amos Cody grew up in Walnut, a small community in Madison County, North Carolina, in the mountains not far from the Tennessee line. He now teaches at East Tennessee State University. The setting for these twelve stories is linked by the fictional town of Runion, reminiscent of Walnut and by the passage of one year through the seasons.  “A vivid portrait of a community in an age of rapid change . . .Cody’s is one of the most authentic and inspired voices in contemporary Appalachian fiction, addressing such subjects as AIDS, bias, troubling history, marriage, ghosts, dementia, and abiding loyalty and love. In these linked stories he speaks for both the region and the world beyond.” – Robert Morgan. “For those who wish to understand contemporary Appalachia – with its crazy quilt bend of past, present, and future – I cannot recommend A Twilight Reel highly enough! Savor each of these stories in turn and then marvel at the world they together make.” – Terry Roberts.