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November 2017 - Reviews

November 2017 - Reviews


Warlords of Appalachia by Phillip Kennedy Johnson. Los Angeles, California: Boom! Studios, a 2017 release that first appeared in four magazines in 2016. 112 un-numbered pages  illustrated by Jonas Scharf, colored by Doug Garbark, lettered by Jim Campbell, cover by Massimo Carnevale. Trade paperback, $19.99.

The author, Phillip Kennedy Johnson states that his vision of this book was formed before the Trump Presidency, but that event essentially adds credence to his plot. The setting is a future America taken over by fascists and only Kentucky refuses to accept the sovereignty of the national regime, and dares to fight for freedom. “Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Jonas Scharf deliver a fully-realized, semi-post-apocalyptic world in Warlords of Appalachia, which mixes political extremism and Robin Hood-style rebellion into a perfectly balanced narrative.” - Newsarama “A riveting, unflinching view into an increasingly plausible future. This is a book you can’t miss” - James Tynion IV.


Wildflowers of the Appalachian Trail by Leonard M. Adkins. Birmingham. Alabama: Menasha Ridge Press,  a 2017 third edition of a 1999 release. 224 pages with color photographs by Joe Cook & Monica Sheppard on every other page, an Index and a Glossary. Trade paperback 7” X 7”, $16.95.

This is the ninth Appalachian Trail  book by Adkins and his 19th guide book to our region. And his experience shows. This new edition includes five additional wildflowers, full-page, full-color photos, and both snapshot summaries and detailed descriptions. The contents are arranged by color for quick reference with a full-page photo on the left page as you open the book up and a description of the flower the right page telling where and when to observe each flower.

Into the Mist: Tales of Death and Disaster, Mishaps and Misdeeds, Misfortune and Mayhem in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Volume 1 by David Brill. Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2017. 280 pages with an Index and photos. Trade paperback, $14.95.

Since it was first established in 1931 an average of five or six people have died every year within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The leading cause is auto accidents which have killed 132 people. 21 died in motorcycle accidents and 2 on bicycles. 73 have died in plane crashes; 60 have drowned.  37 committed suicide. 14 have been murdered. Only one has been killed by a snake bite, and only one by a wild animal, but 8 have been killed by domestic animals. There have been 13 fatal construction accidents; eight have been killed by falling trees and three by lightning strikes. 14 have died of hypothermia and 18 fell to their deaths. Most of the rest died of health problems or unknown causes. This book catalogs all of the deaths by date and provides chapters that examine some of the most dramatic and interesting stories. This is the fifth book by the author, David Brill, who lives in Morgan County, Tennessee.

The Long Weeping by Jessie Van Eerden. Asheville, North Carolina: Orison Books, 2017. 194 pages. Trade paperback, $18.00.

Jessie Van Eerden directs the highly successful low-residency MFA Program at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. This is her first essay collection following the publication of two novels. These essays elevate the seemingly mundane. “Van Eerden is one of the best essayist working today if judged by her craft and intellect alone, but her gifts so beyond those: she is also one of the most honest. . . Van Eerden is brave enough to say the hard things. She’s strong enough to love the hard places” - Ann Pancake.

Picturing Harrisonburg: Visions of a Shenandoah Valley City since 1828 by David Ehrenpreis. Harrisonburg, Virginia: George F. Thompson Publishing, 2017. 299 pages with an Index, Notes, and numerous color and black-and-white photographs and maps. Hardback in dust jacket, 9.25” X 11.5”, $40.00.

What a beautiful coffee-table book!  Yet it is so much more than that. Arranged chronologically, it tells the history of the city in many voices and many dimensions. The author/editor is the Director of the Institute for Visual Studies and Professor of Art History at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, and it shows!  Other scholar contributors are in the fields of history, geography, and English, providing a team well-suited for the task of portraying the history of this city in both an aesthetic and an intriguing way.

Simple Days, Honest and True: My Appalachian Roots, Realities and Reasonings by Vicki Palmer Hall. Huntington, West Virginia: Mid-Atlantic Highlands, 2017. 152 pages with one color photograph of the author and her family. Trade paperback, $13.00.

This book is a memoir by a lady who grew up along the Ohio River near Huntington, West Virginia, and taught 8th grade for 28 years. It tells of everyday family events, including the challenges of mental illness, motherhood, and cancer.

Hamlin Gathering by Gladys Hamlin Hensley, edited by Judith Victoria Hensley. Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace, 2016. Trade paperback. $15.00.

Gladys Hamlin Hensley was born in 1933, the twelfth child in a family that eventually numbered 16 siblings.  The family lived in Wick Hollow in Harlan County, Kentucky.  At the age of 82, in 2015, she began to write down recollections of what it was like to grow up in a large family in an Eastern Kentucky hollow. The book is edited by her daughter, Judith Victoria Hensley. Included are pictures and information about all her siblings and other family members.

Wildcrafting and Other Stories I Share Only with My Friends by Jerry L. Hurley. Huntington, West Virginia: Mid-Atlantic Highlands, 2017. 195 pages. Trade paperback, $14.95.

The author, Jerry L. Hurley, shares a biographical voyage similar to many with strong ties to our region. He was born in 1952 in Cleveland where his parents had left their West Virginia roots to find work. When he was in the fifth grade, his parents moved back to West Virginia to be near his grandfather who was ill. After he died a few months later, Hurley’s family returned to Cleveland, and when he was in the seventh grade, they moved back for good. After a career in public education, he retired to Florida and began to write autobiographical vignettes which are collected in this volume. “James Hurley’s Wildcrafting tells of a boy’s life in the simpler days of the 1960s with zinging accuracy and tender humor. But it is not just the usual sweet tale of rural life ..  . boys play pranks, sneak off to smoke, and fumble their way to adulthood.” - Carter Taylor Seaton.

The Last Castle: The Epic Story of Love, Loss, and American Royalty in the Nation’s Largest Home by Denise Kiernan. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2017.  388 pages with an Index, Notes, Sources, and photos. Hardback in dust jacket, $28.00.

Each year, more than a million visitors tour the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, to visit the largest home ever to exist in America. It was built between 1889 and 1895 by George and Edith Vanderbilt.  The home brimmed with priceless art and antiques and its library held over 10,000 volumes. The architect was Richard Morris Hunt, and the landscape architect was Frederick Law Olmsted. The Vanderbilts owned a surrounding estate of over 125,000 acres commanding the view from their hilltop mansion on all sides. This forest is considered the “Cradle of American Forestry”  because its first  forester, Gifford Pinchot, was also the first Chief of the United States Forest Service, and his successor , Dr. Carl A. Schenck, established America’s first school of forestry. Part of the home and grounds have been open to the public since 1930, though family members still live there.  Presently the great-grandson of Edith and George and his family live there, but other parts of the ample building - covering over three acres under roof - have restaurants and lodging places for the tourists. The author, Denise Kiernan, well-suited for this task, having demonstrated her ability in her first book, The Girls of Atomic City, to celebrate the role of women in a setting that appears to be ruled by men. In this book Kiernan provides unity to the story as well as much new information by foregrounding the role of Edith Vanderbilt in not only the construction, and the amazing social life of this home, but also the very economic survival of the estate. Kiernan received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University and has been a journalist, a writer and a producer for television. This book was named an October 2017 Indie Next List selection and a Barnes & Noble Best Book of 2017. “The Last Castle gripped me from the very first page. With a historian’s keen insight and a poet’s gift for language, Denise Kiernan depicts life at Biltmore with such skill, I felt like I was there through it all: weddings, divorces, elaborate (and slightly bizarre) balls, financial glory, financial ruin, murder, suicide, natural disasters, betrayals, love, loss, despair, and triumph.” - Karen Abbott.

The Cincinnati Human Relations Commission: A History, 1943-2013 by Phillip J. Obermiller and Thomas E. Wagner. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2017. 145 pages with an Index, Sources, appendices, a timeline, photos, and a Foreword by Michael E. Maloney. Hardback with pictorial cover, $29.93

Appalachia? Well, anyone involved in Appalachian Studies over the last several decades will recognize the names Obermiller, Wagner, and Maloney. What attracted them to do this history is exactly what makes it pertinent to this list. In Cincinnati, the relationship between mountain migrants and the mainstream has been just as worrisome and crucial as that between any other racial or ethnic groups, and that has been recognized by the Cincinnati Human Relations Commissions (CHRC) from the beginning.  “This full and balanced history of human relations efforts in Cincinnati during the tenure of the CHRC reveals the intriguing cooperative nature by which citizens organize to engage in civic action.  Photos and multiple viewpoints round out a book that will engage practitioners, students, and the general public alike.” - Jennifer Jarvis Tighe.

Cemeteries of the Smokies by Gail Palmer. Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2017. 698 pages with an Index, Reference Sources and many color photographs. Trade paperback, $29.95.

Did you notice that? 698 pages!  Yes, this is an amazing book. It is just beautiful. A gorgeous color photograph and a map and commentary introduces each of the eight former neighborhoods in North Carolina now within the Park Boundary and the ten former Tennessee neighborhoods. Overall there are 67 cemeteries on the North Carolina side of the Park and 86 on the Tennessee side. For each cemetery this book tells when it was opened, what its GPS coordinates are, how many graves there are and what the family names are. And then it features pictures of some of the graves and then has a chart which gives all of the names of the buried, their birth and death dates, and comments on most of the graves. The final section enumerates the 2,005 graves and 649 monuments from the 39 cemeteries inundated by Fontana Lake. Some of these graves were relocated before the dam was completed and some remained where they were buried at the request of descendents. This book is an invaluable primary source for historians and a meaningful and beautiful keepsake for the descendents of all those displaced by the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an International Biosphere Reserve - true martyrs for the cause of environmental protection, research, and enjoyment.  The author, Gail Palmer, is a descendent of residents of the Cades Cove neighborhood now within the Park Boundary. A native of Blount County, she  lives in Townsend, Tennessee, near the Park. This is her third book about the Smokies along with two DVDs. She holds a masters in journalism and a doctorate in cultural studies.

Hazel Creek: The Life and Death of an Iconic Mountain Community by Daniel S. Pierce. Gatlinburg, Tennessee: Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2017. 119 pages with an Index, Selected Bibliography, and photos. Trade paperback, $10.95.

Hazel Creek was one of the largest and most bustling communities displaced by the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The previous entry here lists 16 cemeteries located in that former community, not counting the 39 inundated by Fontana Lake. Hazel Creek was the home of Cherokee people, and later of bear-hunters, moonshiners, and revenuers. The Ritter Lumber Company brought in first land-buyers and then loggers. Hazel Creek was the site of a CCC camp and provided a workforce for the construction of Fontana Dam. Its most famous resident was Horace Kephart, the author of Our Southern Highlanders (1913) and books about camping and outdoor life. This book was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award. The author, Daniel S. Pierce, is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the author of three previous books.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll. New York: Hill and Wang/Farrar, Straus & Giraux/Macmillan, 2017. 410 pages with an Index, Notes, Bibliography and photos. Hardback in dust jacket, $30.

This book is clearly one of the most important books about Appalachia in recent years. The author is a formidable scholar who did his undergraduate work at Berkeley and received a master's and doctorate in history from Yale. He has taught throughout his career at Fordham. This is his fifth book from a major publisher.

     In a nutshell, he takes Harriette Arnow’s thesis that 19th Century Appalachia was a land of relatively equal yeoman farmers and Wilma Dunaway’s antithesis that Appalachia has always been integrated into American capitalism and establishes a synthesis around his concept of a makeshift economy - small farmers who do some work for money but supply most of their own needs from gardening and gathering and crafts.  Importantly he expands upon the central concept of Kathryn Newfont’s Blue Ridge Commons emphasizing how important common ground is to sustaining smallholders, and how devastating the appropriation of common ground has been to freeholders throughout the world. This book could easily be seen as a book of Atlantic history, rather than Appalachian history, except for the fact that beyond mentioning campesinos on eight pages, he doesn’t focus on South America as much as Africa and Europe.

    One of the keys concepts of this book is that peasant societies around the world have been oppressed by mainstream ideas of stages of economic development. He rejects the idea that any culture depended exclusively on barter and the notion of purely subsistence farms and insists that they are always a part of a makeshift economy. He points out that a makeshift economy is not simply a stage of economic development inexorably and beneficently leading to a fully monetized laboring life. He traces the history of Appalachia, first focussing on the Whiskey Rebellion as a conflict between Alexander Hamilton’s belief in the benefits of a money economy and Appalachian devotion to a makeshift economy. He then centers on the effort to incorporate freeholders into coal camps as a similar fundamental conflict. He ends his book with a plea for a Commons Community Act which would allow the government to institute land reform and create communities with common land complemented by small homesteads allowing a makeshift economy to flourish again.

    I predict that Stoll’s book will not receive the widespread influence of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands  or J. D. Vance’s  Hillbilly Elegy because of its scholarly depth. It often reads like the transcript of a professor’s fascinating lectures in a class where the students have learned how to game the system by getting the professor to veer off-topic. Yet this weakness is also a strength. His treatment of how African-Americans were prevented from land ownership during Reconstruction is an important complement to his argument, but not, in my view, his consideration of George Inness’s 1883 painting, Short Cut Watchung Station, New Jersey which he considers “interesting for reasons other than the tension it expresses between Nature and Culture” (p. 195).

    At times his clarity of expression and his depth of understanding are striking as in this transition to a comparison between the appropriation of Appalachian land and Native American land - “The Civil War should be understood as a conflict with two Union fronts, one in the South and the other in the West” (p. 178).

    This book is certainly an important contribution to Appalachian scholarship, exemplary in its international perspective, its use of primary sources, its willingness to include a prescription for ameliorating the problems it explicates, and the importance and clarity of its fundamental thesis. I believe it makes a significant contribution to the illumination of how Appalachia came to be the way is.


In the Circle of His Arms by Lyric Blessing. Charleston, South Carolina: Create Space, 2016. 281 pages. Trade paperback, $16.00

This Christian romance novel is set in a fictional college in a fictional town but inspired by the communities of Rose Hill and Ewing in Lee County, Virginia. It tells the story of a head resident of a woman’s dorm who becomes attracted to a male student who is dating one of the dorm’s students.


Heaven’s Crooked Finger: A Mystery by Hank Early. New York: Crooked Lane Books, 2017. 326 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.99.

The protagonist of this novel is named Earl Marcus. He grew up in North Georgia in his father’s Church of the Holy Flame, a snake handling congregation. He leaves as soon as he can, but returns to solve the mystery when he hears rumors that his father is still alive years after his burial. Kirkus Reviews gave this novel a starred review and commented, “You won’t put down this powerful and painful tale . . . a gripping mystery.” Paul Tremblay called it “A twisty, page-turning modern Southern Gothic that packs an emotional wallop.” The author, Hank Early, grew up in the mountains of Georgia and is now a middle school teacher in central Alabama. He published four books of fiction as John Mantooth.

A Murder for the Books by Victoria Gilbert. New York: Crooked Lane, 2017. 323 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $26.99.

Set in a Virginia mountain town, this novel follows Amy Webber who leaves a university library job to live with her aunt and begins to work at the town public library. Her neighbor is interested not only in her but in a cold murder case that appears to involve the town’s leading families as well as the families of the two neighbors. The author was raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains and is a professional librarian. She lives in North Carolina.

The Sound of Rain by Sarah Loudin Thomas. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2017. 331 pages. Trade paperback, $15.99.

Bethany House is a Christian publisher with high standards, and Sarah Loudin Thomas elevates their mission. Sure, her characters say grace before their meals, but they are not your stereotypical religious fanatics. The clever and compelling dramatic situation that propels this novel is the coming together of Judd Markley, a West Virginia coal miner traumatized by a mine accident who seeks refuse in Myrtle Beach, and Larkin Heyward,  the daughter of his new boss at a South Carolina logging operation. She feels a compulsion to be a do-gooder in the very mountains that Judd is escaping. Can the two transcend the gaping gulf of initial cultural misunderstanding? The author, Sarah Loudin Thomas, grew up on a seventh generation farm near French Creek in Upshur County, West Virginia, graduated from Coastal Carolina University, and now lives in Asheville, North Carolina and works as a fundraiser for a Christian children’s home in Black Mountain. She has published a novel with Bethany House every year since 2013.


I Know Your Kind  by William Brewer.  Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, 2017. 75 pages, trade paperback, $16.

This is a truly dramatic debut volume of poetry from a very talented newcomer who is calling attention to an overarching issue. William Brewer grew up in Oceana a small Wyoming County town in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia. It has been given the nickname Oxyana because of the way that drug companies and local health-care providers have flooded the town with prescription painkillers, especially Oxycontin, and the way that they have become people killers. Oxyana was the name of Brewer’s first chapbook which won the 2017 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for those under 30. Brewer is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. This volume is a winner of the National Poetry Series. “The poems are elegiac, viscerally present, and reveal the interiority of those struggling at the margins of our society. William Brewer is an immensely gifted poet.”  Eduard C. Corral. “I Know Your Kind endures as a riveting and poignant debut where Brewer captures the horrors of substance abuse, the spiritual rigors of recovery, and ultimately, the fraught relationship between an obliterated landscape and self-obliteration.” - Plume.

Season of the Second Thought by Lynn Powell. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2017. 58 pages. Trade paperback. $14.95.

Lynn Powell is a native of East Tennessee who graduated from Carson-Newman College and earned her MFA from Cornell University. She now teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Oberlin College where she directs their Writers in the Schools Program. This is her third poetry book. Her nonfiction book, Framing Innocence, won the Studs and Ida Terkel Award. Of this book, R. T. Smith wrote, “Not just written, but wrought. Powell’s new poems deftly combine keen observation with perfect pitch, and their rich chiaroscuro renders them vibrant and painterly as the Dutch masters they often reference. The current running through her lines leaves me shivering with excitement and gratitude.” 


The Winter People  by John Ehle. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Press 53, A 2017 reprint of a 1981 release. 271 pages. Trade paperback, $19.95.

John Ehle stands as one of the leading Appalachian authors of the 20th Century.  His eleven novels, taken together, encompass the history of his native Western North Carolina, They are complemented by six nonfiction books. An activist as well as an author, Ehle participated in the local Civil Rights Movement during the ten years he was a professor at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, and later wrote a book about, it.  He quit his job as a professor to join the electoral campaign and then the staff of Governor Terry Sanford. His accomplishments there, including establishing the North Carolina School for the Arts, led to a job with the Ford Foundation. Later in life, he married the renowned British actress, Rosemary Harris. They live in Winston-Salem, but maintain homes in Penland, New York, and London. Set in the 1930s, The Winter People could just as easily portray the lives of some mountain people decades later. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “A fine book, rich and haunting and a source of great, deep pleasure.” The Washington Post called it “A lovely novel . . . a very substantial piece of work, thoroughly satisfying in every important respect.” Newsweek wrote, “A spare, funny, harrowing, moving novel drawn with sure, swift strokes.”

Folk Songs from the West Virginia Hills by Patrick Ward Gainer.  Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, a 2017 reprint of a 1975 release. 236 pages with an Index, Bibliography, and the notes for lots of songs. Trade paperback, $24.99.

Patrick Ward Gainer (1904-1981) taught English at West Virginia University for decades. His course on Appalachian music was popular and featured many guest artists. He traveled extensively throughout West Virginia seeking out the state’s folklore. In addition to this book, he wrote Witches, Ghosts, and Signs: Folklore of the Southern Appalachians. After a short foreword and introduction this book launches right into pages with the words and music to tune after tune along with a brief introduction to each. The five chapters are “The Child Ballads,” “Other Ballads and Folk Songs,” “Fiddle Tune Songs,” “Choral Singing in the Mountains,” and “The Negro Contribution.” Over 100 tunes are included.

Hanging Rock Rebel: Lt. John Blue’s War in West Virginia & The Shenandoah Valley - Along with Other Writings edited by Dan Oates. Parsons, West Virginia: McClain Printing Company, a 2017 revised edition of a 1994 release. 337 pages with an Index, illustrations and photos. Trade paperback, $22.00.

Lt. John Blue (1834-1903)  was born and raised near Hanging Rock,  where the South Branch of the Potomac River slices through Mill Creek Mountain in Hampshire County, Virginia, now West Virginia. As a Confederate soldier, scout, and courier he had a unique vantage point for seeing the Civil War as well as a gift for expressing what he saw. He wrote her recollections down 35 years after the war. His experiences include capture, escape, and rescue. He served in both the Shenandoah Valley and the Alleghenies. The editor, Dan Oates taught at the W. V. Schools for the Deaf and Blind and now works at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where he coordinates services for blind and visually impaired student visitors.