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March 2022 Reviews

March 2022 Reviews


Critical Essays on the Writings of Lillian Smith edited by Tanja Long Bennett. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2021. 179 pages with an Index, maps, photos, and illustrations. Trade paperback.

This is a collection of seven scholarly essays about the work of Lillian Smith (1897-1966). She lived with her family in Florida until, when she was 17, they relocated to property they owned in the northeastern Georgia mountains. After a year in college and a couple of years at a conservatory, she returned home and taught in mountain schools and then taught music in China. In 1925, she returned to Georgia and took over Laurel Falls Camp which her father had founded five years earlier but was no longer healthy enough to run. When Paula Snelling became a counselor there, she and Lillian Smith became life-long partners. After their deaths, their correspondence revealed that they considered themselves lesbian lovers, although they understandably did not make that public during their lifetimes. From 1936 until 1945 they published a literary magazine that ended up being named South Today. Publication ceased that year because the previous year Lillian Smith published the novel Strange Fruit that became a best-seller. The title, she maintained, did not refer to lynching, but to the “damaged, twisted people (both black and white) who are the products of our racist culture.” Because it dealt with inter-racial romance, it was banned in places all over the country, and the U.S. Postal System forbade it from being shipped until Eleanor Roosevelt convinced her husband to lift the ban. Smith followed that literary success with a book of essays, Killers of the Dream (1949) that, in prose, stated her unambiguous anti-racist perspective.  Five subsequent books and numerous articles fleshed out her literary contribution, unparalleled in terms of her courage, as a white Southern woman in her time, in tackling crucial controversial subjects despite the virulent repression of dissent in her era.  She was an early supporter not only of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. In Critical Essays, two of the essays focus on Killers of the Dream, while the other five each focus on one of her subsequent books including her last book published in 1964 - all except Now Is the Time (1955). The editor, Tanya Long Bennett contributes an introductory essay and the first essay on Strange Fruit. She is an English professor at the University of North Georgia.

Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia by Luke Manget. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2022. 296 pages with an Index and Notes. Hardback in dust jacket.

Full disclosure: I have dug “sang” on the common land near the small farm in Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley watershed where my late wife and I started our married life in the 1970s. Recent books – like Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll (2018) and Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in Western North Carolina by Katheryn Newfont (2012) and Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America by Paul Salstrom (2021) have focused attention on the crucial role that common land has played in making what Stoll calls the mixed economy of small-scale farming sustainable. Common land is ground that is not developed and available for unobtrusive usage to nearby landowners. For generations, digging ginseng on the common land has been a key source of income for otherwise primarily subsistence farmers. Thus, this book that explores that tradition is particularly vital. "Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Ginseng Diggers is a tour de force in the still-emerging field of US commons history. Manget guides us surefootedly through nineteenth-century Appalachian forests, excavating the intricate ecologies, economies, and cultural contexts medicinal plant gatherers routinely navigated. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in imagining more sustainable futures, Ginseng Diggers makes vital contributions to the histories of medicine and capitalism as well as to environmental history and Appalachian studies."―Kathryn Newfont. "Manget's impressive research in merchant records, correspondence, diaries, and local newspapers provides a fascinating glimpse at the evolution of ginseng culture in Appalachia and its connection to the national economy and society. A major addition to our understanding of land use, the role of the commons, and capitalism in the mountains."―Ronald D Eller. "On rare occasions a book comes along that totally revises how we look at important historical issues. Luke Manget's Ginseng Diggers is such a book, providing crucial new insights into Appalachian subsistence practices. Manget opens up a whole new world of root and herb gathering, the business surrounding it, and the commons practices that made it possible. A must-read for scholars of Appalachia and anyone interested in the region's culture and history."―Daniel S. Pierce. The author of Ginseng Diggers, Luke Manget, teaches history at Dalton State University in Georgia.

The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University by Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2022. 368 pages with an Index, Notes, and color photos. Hardback in dust jacket.

Thomas Jefferson’s involvement in both the philosophy and the particulars of the founding of the University of Virginia are explored here. The author admits that just as Jefferson’s views of democracy were tainted by his adherence to slavery, his views of the role of education in a democracy were flawed. Nevertheless, they were similarly crucial to the founding of not just our nation, but subsequent experiments in self-rule. "It falls to very few individuals personally to conceive and craft a leading university from scratch, from lofty ideals down to the last brick and book. The Illimitable Freedom of the Human Mind: Thomas Jefferson’s Idea of a University vividly describes Thomas Jefferson’s obsessional project for a University of Virginia, and also provides a fresh understanding of the American Enlightenment, its soaring strengths and its ugly flaws.  Jefferson himself emerges not just as a benign, twinkling-eyed patriarch, but also as a ruthless and effective political operator.  Linking the man, the educational content, the state, the nation and the University in a way never before done, O’Shaughnessy has given us an essential text for understanding post-revolutionary America. "—Miles Young. "A great contribution to the literature both on Jefferson and on the University of Virginia. O’Shaughnessy challenges recent scholarship on Jefferson and the history of the university’s founding and explicates Jefferson’s thinking and plans for the university, the commonwealth of Virginia, and the nation. "—Annette Gordon-Reed. "In this well-researched and skillfully crafted history of the University of Virginia, O’Shaughnessy explores the origins of Jefferson’s ideals for the university and gives us a fresh and important way of understanding them. Jefferson, a visionary man of the Enlightenment and lover of books, created the library and chose the curriculum for his university. Jefferson the architect designed and supervised the construction of the physical foundations for his Academical Village. Both of these were crucial to the fulfillment of his life-long commitment to an illimitable freedom of the mind. "—Barbara Oberg. The author, Andrew J. O’Shaughnessy, is vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Life Lessons by Don Reid. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2021. 292 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

This book originated with e-mails that Don Reid sent out to his Sunday school class when coronavirus made meeting in person ill-advised. Ninety short chapters explore a variety of life situations as Don Reid offers guidance from both the scriptures and his personal experiences. “Your heart will be warmed. Your faith will be lifted, and you should definitely expect to smile as you read this Spirit-filled collection of wisdom.” – Lee Thomas. Don Reid was the lead singer of the Statler Brothers, a renowned country and gospel music vocal quartet that performed locally from 1964 until 1972 and then nationally until 2002. Reid lives in his home town of Stanton, Virginia, and has published ten books.

A Place Called District 12: Appalachian Geography and Music in The Hunger Games by Thomas W. Paradis. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2022. 250 pages with an Index, Bibliography, and Notes. Trade paperback.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was a trilogy of best-selling young adult dystopian novels published beginning in 2008 that became four record-breaking feature-length films that were released beginning in 2012. Collins drew upon real-world geography, music, and culture in constructing her fanciful world. This book explores that Appalachian geography, culture, and music that connect with The Hunger Games. The author, Thomas W. Paradis is a professor of geography and community planning at Butler University.

Rightful Liberty: Slavery, Morality and Thomas Jefferson’s World by Arthur Scherr. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 29021.

This book attempts to present a nuanced look at Thomas Jefferson’s evolving and complex world view not only of slavery, but also of intersecting ideas of democracy, morality, and revolution. It focuses in on a variety of events from revolution in Haiti to Congressional compromises and Jefferson’s responses to the influences of a variety of thinkers and friends. “Bold and insightful, Arthur Scherr’s provocative study overturns much of what we though we knew about Thomas Jefferson and slavery.” – Robert M.S. McDonald. “Arthur Scherr has written an important book on Thomas Jefferson. What makes it genuinely exceptional is the author’s knowledge not only of the political history of the era, but also of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century American intellectual history, contexts in which to read the famously complicated Jefferson.” – Ari Helo. The author, Arthur Scherr, is a historian at the City University of New York and the author of four books.

Said-Songs: Essays on Poetry and Place by Jesse Graves. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2021. 217 pages. Trade paperback.

Jesse Graves is widely viewed as one of the most distinguished of the younger generation of poets with deep roots in the Appalachian Region. He grew up in rural East Tennessee and teaches at East Tennessee State University. His recognitions include an award from the prestigious Fellowship of Southern Writers. This is a book of essays, not poems. They range from the personal to the scholarly and the spaces that connect the two. Here we find his insights on James Agee, Ron Rash, Robert Morgan, Charles Wright, and other regional writers, both widely known and relatively obscure. Taken together, we achieve a deeper understanding of the relationship between reading and writing, and we begin to understand why Ron Rash affirmed that “Jesse Graves is one of America’s finest young poets” – not to mention essayists.

Their Determination to Remain: A Cherokee Community’s Resistance to the Trail of Tears in North Carolina by Lance Greene. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2022. 200 pages with Index, Bibliography, Notes, maps, illustrations, and photos. Hardback in dust jacket.

This scholarly study illuminates how the precursors to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians were able to remain in southwestern North Carolina despite President Andrew Jackson’s determination to remove all Cherokees from their homelands and take them on what became known as the Trail of Tears to settle in Oklahoma during the 1830s. Cherokees evaded being rounded up by the U.S. Army in two ways: by escaping to live way back up in the mountains, as illustrated in the story of Tsali, or by living on land deeded to white people. The most well-known example of the later was the white Cherokee trader, William Holland Thomas’s provision of land for Cherokees near Cherokee, North Carolina. This study shows how these two paths came together. It focuses on John Welch, a Cherokee whose wife, Betty was white and was thus able to provide land on their plantation for what became the community known as Welch Town. It was located about 50 miles southwest of Cherokee not far from the Snowbird Watershed that concealed many Cherokees who escaped into the mountains. Many of them came back down to settle in Welch Town and preserve their traditional ways.  The fact that the Welchs owned nine enslaved African-Americans adds another layer to this story. “In Their Determination to Remain, Lance Greene tells the fascinating, but heretofore little-known story of the Cherokee Welch family, slaveholding planters who resisted removal in the 1830s and helped to establish a new Cherokee community in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina after the Trail of Tears. Combining archaeology with meticulous archival research, Greene explores the methods used by Cherokee people to rebuild their lives in the wake of removal, while tracing relationships among the Welches, their enslaved African American workers, and the culturally traditional Cherokee community that shared the family's land. Microhistory at its best, the book represents a significant contribution to the literature on Cherokee and southern Appalachian history, as well as studies of slavery in Indian country.”—Andrew Denson. “Their Determination to Remain is a wonderful book. Lance Greene unearths stories from soil and archives alike to craft a vivid and humane Cherokee history. The writing is clear and concrete, bringing characters to life in a cacophony that reverberates across the hills and valleys of the Great Smoky mountains. We have much to learn not just from Greene’s narrative but also from the methods by which he creates it.” - Elizabeth Fenn. Lance Greene is an anthropology professor at Wright State University.

A Year Without Months by Charles Dodd White. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2022. 176 pages. Trade paperback.

Charles Dodd White, a professor of English at Pellissippi State College, has published four novels and a book of stories. That experience clearly solidified his view that writing is a process of discovery and illumination that allows us to process all kinds of challenging life events. With considerable courage, White, in this book, shares with the reader his attempts to process the suicide of his uncle, his father, and his son. Can close connections to the natural world and the wisdom revealed by immersion in family history and a commitment to pursuing a whole life make a difference or not? Fourteen essays grapple with white’s efforts. the result is stimulating and fascinating and worthwhile even for those of us whose challenges seem miniscule in comparison.  Certainly, we all need to come to grips with patriarchy, violence, kinship and other issues here examined. “Many books linger forever in our minds. Only a few also linger forever in our hearts, and this is one of them.” - Ron Rash. “White has had to redefine ‘southern man’ beyond guns and toughness in order to forge his own identity and in order, really, to survive. but this book is also deeply about loss, about coming to terms with our own failures, especially as parents. There’s a tremendous tenderness and grace here—for the imperfect dead who have gone on, for the flawed family that we still can love, and for the strong yet humble self, in all our many mistakes. This is such a beautiful, powerful book. read it and be changed.” – Jim Minick.


Fate Moreland’s Widow by John Lane. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, a 2021 paperback reprint of a 2015 release. 248 pages. Trade paperback.

The protagonist of this novel, Ben Crocker, witnesses on Labor Day in 1935 a boat on a lake owned by a cotton mill owner capsize and its three occupants drown. The mill scion was charged with murder. In 1988, Crocker, still haunted by this tragedy, began to seriously look into the calamity and attempt to deal with the ramifications of it. "In this engaging first novel by acclaimed nature writer John Lane, self-proclaimed company man Ben Crocker tells his story, as the overworked, underpaid flunky of a 1930's textile mogul in the Carolina Blue Ridge foothills. The unlovable boss man and his big cruiser have swamped a small boat on the company lake and drowned three people. Among the dead are the husband and child of gorgeous Novie Moreland, dream girl of half the countryside. The young Widow Moreland is nobody's fool, but nobody's paragon either, as smitten Ben must learn. Lane's cautionary tale of land, labor, love, and loyalty is as pertinent today as it was in its Depression era of mill uprisings and shootings."―Dot Jackson. "John Lane deftly captures the hardscrabble plight of the southern mill worker and the ambitious greed of the southern mill owner in Fate Moreland's Widow. But he does an even better job of capturing the quandary of Ben Crocker, the man precariously stuck in the middle."―Wiley Cash. "The literature of the southern mill village has been underdone and this magnificent novel adds greatly to it. What John Lane does better than anyone I have read is explore the interrelatedness of both the mill worker and the mill owner, trapped by the desires and abuses of unchecked power. Their symbiosis is opaque and troublesome. In the widow Novie Moreland, John has crafted a masterfully nuanced new symbol of male obsession and female resilience poised to become the Circe of the Carolina foothills."―Pat Conroy. "John Lane has written a crackerjack page-turner that brings the whole violent and complicated struggle of the southern textile mills to brilliant, blazing life. Narrator Ben Crocker is a man caught between two worlds: the poverty of his own childhood spent among hill people and millworkers versus the prosperity and social status attached to his job as accountant for a big mill owner. When murder brings these two worlds into direct collision, Crocker finds himself the point man. I couldn't put this book down. Fate Moreland's Widow is part mystery, part sociology, part love story, with the best kind of surprising twist at the end―I admit I never saw it coming, though now it seems inevitable."―Lee Smith. "John Lane has long been recognized as one of the South's finest poets and memoirists. This debut establishes him as one of our finest novelists as well. His poet's eye for detail seamlessly merges with a born storyteller's gift for narrative. Fate Moreland's Widow gives voice to those who endured one of the most painful and neglected chapters in American history."―Ron Rash. A retired professor, author John Lane lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Our Little Secret: A Smoky Mountains Family Saga and Coming of Age Story Inspired by True Crimes by Stanford Johnson. Townsend, Tennessee: self-published, 2021. 300 pages. Trade paperback.

In this novel, when five-year-old Danny Jackson speaks to his grandmother about the ni**er grave, she tells him not to use that word. Years later, Danny and the great-grandfather of the murdered Black man try to uncover what really happened with the help of Danny’s grandmother.The author, Stanford Johnson, was inspired to write this novel by the fact that his own great-great grandfather objected to a murdered Black man having his body thrown in the road fill of the Rich Mountain Road under construction in Blount County, Tennessee, and allowed him to be buried on his farm during the 1920s.


Not Xanadu by Cathryn Hankla. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2022. 86 pages. Hardback with pictorial cover.

In “Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge began with the lines, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasure dome decree.” Evidently, Hankla’s title means that she is writing this, her eleventh poetry collection, somewhere other than a stately pleasure dome. As we read these poems, we can assess whether her pleasure dome simply lacks being stately or her stately dome is not sufficiently pleasurable or whether her environs lack both. Born and raised in Richlands, Virginia, at the edge of the coal fields, Hankla has enjoyed a four-decade career teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke where she makes her home. She is also the author of four books of fiction and a memoir that focuses on the idea of finding and losing a home. "The poems in Cathryn Hankla's Not Xanadu are clear-eyed and sharp-tongued, vulnerable, unabashed, and prescient. To live in our moment, they suggest, we'd best be alert to absurdity as well as beauty, and hold close moments of reverie as well as face affronts, to know both 'the broken egg and the living bird.' A close observer of both nature and the use and misuse of language, a runner, a native Appalachian, a mindful woman, Hankla can suggest volumes in the merest phrase. These lyric and keen poems have in equal measure seriousness of purpose and lightness of touch." --Carol Moldaw. “Not Xanadu’s poems make an indispensable contribution to many subjects: despair, broken-heartedness, regret, bitterness, careful observation of one's self and what one sees, awe, hope. Hankla has written a book that lets us see why poems are written. The poem 'Considering the Alternative' shows the way." --Dara Wier.