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September 2019 Reviews

September 2019 Reviews


Religion of Fear: The True Story of the Church of God of the Union Assembly by David Cady. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2019. 282 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, a Foreword by Ralph W Hood, Jr., and photos. Hardback with pictorial cover, $34.95.

I first heard about the Church of God of the Union Assembly and it’s founder C. T. Pratt in conversations with Don West (1906-1992) the charismatic preacher, union organizer, historian of protest, mountain music promoter, and co-founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee in 1932 and the Appalachian South Folklife Center in West Virginia in 1967. Pratt, who was illiterate, hired Don West in 1954 to publish a pro-union newspaper, The Southerner, for the church at its headquarters in Dalton, Georgia. In 1956, community pressure by anti-union forces that accused Don West of being a Communist, finally forced Pratt to turn on West. More than once, Don West, related to me the story of his shooting out the tires of a car that followed him menacingly as he crossed Fort Mountain on his way driving out of town to his mother’s home in Blairsville. Pratt founded the church in 1917, and this book starts there, and follows the church after his death as his fourth son, Jesse, took it over, and the church grew by 1995 to include fifty-four churches in nineteen states. When he mysteriously died, his wife appointed their son, Jesse Junior, to be its leader, but he subsequently squandered the church’s fortune, and his younger brother, Charlie T. Pratt III took over and ushered in a new anti-authoritarian era. “The story of the Church of God of Union Assembly—the so-called Pratt Church—is truly a fascinating one. Not only is Cady’s narrative supported by actual interviews with former members, it also draws on numerous original sources, including church assembly minutes. Religion of Fear fills an important vacuum in our understanding of Holiness-Pentecostal sects in the American South, as well as their spread into other regions of the United States.” —Donald E. Davis. The author, David Cady, is a retired science teacher at Dalton High School, who previously published three novels.


True Christmas Stories from the Heart of Appalachia compiled and edited by James M. Gifford, Judith F. Kidwell, and Wayne Onkst. Ashland, Kentucky: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2019. 215 pages with illustrations and photos provided by the authors included. 6.5” X 9.5” trade paperback, $25.00.

This collection of 43 True Christmas Stories from the Heart of Appalachia combines entries from contemporary authors with selections from essays by historical authors, including Jesse Stuart, Cratis Williams, Thomas D. Clark, and Billy C. Clark. The contemporary authors are not nearly as well know, but some have previously published articles and books. Thirty-five of the stories are set in Eastern Kentucky, and the rest in adjoining states. These Christmas stories are endearing and do also illuminate regional life, making this book an especially appropriate Christmas gift especially for people who have a strong sentimental attachment to traditional mountain life.  The editors are James Gifford who has, for decades led the Jesse Stuart Foundation; Judith F. Kidwell is his administrative assistant, and Wayne Onkst is retired from his position as Kentucky State Librarian.


Facing Freedom: An African American Community in Virginia from Reconstruction to Jim Crow by Daniel B. Thorpe.  Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, a 2019 first paperback edition of a 2017 release. 294 pages with an Index, Bibliography, Notes, maps and photos. Trade paperback, $29.50.

This is exactly the kind of book that hopefully will be written to explore the African-American experience in Appalachia in many communities during many times. As the sub-title makes clear, it focuses on the time from the late 1800s into the 1900s in Montgomery County, where the author teaches history and serves as a dean at Virginia Tech. “Facing Freedom provides glimpses of the complex ways freed people inhabited, defined, and shaped freedom." - Catherine Jones. “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. “Daniel Thorp’s portrait of the African American experience in one place has much to tell us about race relations elsewhere in the region and well beyond.” - John C. Inscoe.



Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019. 289 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $27.00.

This novel is set in Appalachian Ohio in 2015, and is told in four voices. Helen moves to the area from Seattle to do the “back-to-the-land” thing with her boyfriend, but he lasts only a few months. Karen and Lily are Helen’s neighbors, a lesbian couple who grew up there, and Perley is their young son. They all move in together and form a family.  They are committed to stay, and their fights are not just among themselves, but also against a pipeline building project that threatens them and their community. “This is a stellar novel.” – Publishers Weekly, starred review. “On their Appalachian homestead, an unusual family struggles with the wilderness, society, and each other . . . And ffitch has surely created one of the best child narrators in recent memory with the charming Perley. A cleareyed, largehearted take on the social protest novel.” Kirkus Reviews. “An enthralling debut.” – Amelia Gray.  “No marketing copy – no matter how sharp – can fully portray the rich, insightful exploration of family authority, nature, and Appalachia herein. So you really should read this sparkling debut for yourself.” – Pete Mulvihill. “Through a blend of sharp dialogue, lyrical description, and wise observation, ffitch takes us deep into the hearts of her characters and the land they inhabit. The prose sings a new way of seeing Appalachia into the world, while cleaving to some of what is familiar.” – Melanie McNair. “I found myself really drawn to the author’s use of language, particularly in the dialogue and the characters’ inner monologues. There is a sort of rawness to the word choice that seems to fit how things actually flow in real life—unpolished. The characters and their relationships also stood out to me. The primary layers all had a core whose gravity could be felt actively trying to hold on to their chosen family and way of life.” – Erin Mays Caudill. “Hers is the fiercest, wisest book about parenting that I’ve read in a very long time.” – Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. “ffitch has the real, funny, not funny, gorgeous, breathing world in her hands. She is giving it to you to hold for a while.” – Carolyn Chute. This is Madelnie ffitch’s first novel, following the story collection, Valparaiso Round the Horn. She says she inherited her last name, ffitch, uncapitalized, from her father who is from 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.”


Hazel: A Novel by David Huddle. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, 2019. 196 pages. Trade paperback, $17.95.

This is David Huddle’s 21st book. It is the retrospective story of an eccentric old Vermont spinster. “Long one of the true masters of American fiction, David Huddle here shows himself at the height of his powers. Hazel stuns us, for one thing, by its capacity to arouse affection for the title character, who, abstractly described, would seem to invite dislike. . . . To call the novel’s narrative strategy ‘inventive’ would almost amount to an insult, so dazzling and persuasive is its delivery of this truth.” – Sydney Lea.  "David Huddle introduces Ms. Hazel Hicks, a maiden lady of a certain age, and as improbable a literary hero as has come along in many years. Hazel puts the lone in loner. She is eccentric, solitary, severe, humorless, discontented, self-absorbed, and nearly invisible to others in her family and milieu. Hazel s would seem to be the life story of one who has no life. Nevertheless, owing to her creator's utterly assured, sympathetic, multifaceted storytelling, she is never a tragic figure, or even a pitiable one. Rather, she appears with the contradictions, self-inflicted wounds, (and blessings) the reader recognizes as belonging to life. Don't miss Hazel Hicks. She may try you, she may frustrate you, she may exasperate you. But you will not forget her." --Castle Freeman, Jr. David Huddle was born and raised in Ivanhoe, a Virginia company town on the New River. He served in the Army from 1964 until 1967, and graduated from the University of Virginia, subsequently earning degrees from Hollins College in Roanoke and Columbia University. He was a professor at the University of Vermont or 38 years and then taught at Hollins and Austin Peay University in Tennessee.  He still teaches at Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writers Conference and lives in Burlington, Vermont, where he enjoys taking pictures of birds.


The Cold Way Home by Julia Keller. New York: Minotaur/St. Martin’s, 2019. 320 pages. Hardback in dust jacket, $27.99.

The town of Akers Gap, West Virginia, and the character, Bell Elkins, have made Julia Keller into one of West Virginia’s most prominent contemporary authors. This is her eighth novel to depict that town and that protagonist. Booklist’s starred review affirms that “Keller’s Bell Elkins series sets a standard for evocation of place and for the sensitive portrayals of its characters, with Bell the most masterfully drawn of all. This is introspective, literary crime fiction at its best.”  USA Today proclaims, “It’s wonderful to see a mystery series as literary and reflective as this one flourish.” Publishers Weekly comments on The Cold Way Home: “This is a strong addition to the series that can easily be read as a standalone.” This novel provides ample food for thought as a dead body is found amidst the ruins of a former psychiatric hospital for the poor on the outskirts of Akers Gap.  Detective Bell Elkins, a former prosecutor with a subsequent criminal record, cannot solve this mystery without considering the role of the asylum in the history of this West Virginia town. “Delivered with Keller’s trademark eloquence and sense of morality―and a stunning twist―The Cold Way Home exemplifies literary worth.” Fredericksburg Freelance Star. The versatile Dr. Julia Keller (PhD in literature from The Ohio State University) chaired the jury for the Pulitzer in criticism in 2012 and garnered a Pulitzer herself as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. She was born and raised in Huntington and received her Bachelors and Masters at Marshall University there. She now divides her time between Chicago and a small Ohio town.


Mama’s Song by P. Shaun Neal. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2019. 235 pages. Trade paperback, $18.00.

This coming-of-age novel is set in Rowan County, in Eastern Kentucky.  It begins with the funeral of thirteen-year-old Colby Grayson’s father, a tobacco farmer, who has died with his crop in the field. The title acknowledges the central role played by Colby’s mother and the importance of values beyond the necessity of getting the work done. “P. Shaun Neal's novel Mama's Song is lyrical and bracing, as rich as the dark soil that nurtures the tobacco crop Colby must somehow bring in after his father's death, or risk losing the family farm. Neal conjures a large cast of fully-realized characters, damaged and humane and true to life . . .  Mama's Song will pull you in from the first page, as secrets meant to stay buried as deep as a coffin slowly rise, conspiring to bring Colby's story to its gripping climax. Beautifully written and highly recommended.” ~David T. Miller. The author, P. Shaun Neal, earned a B.A. in English at the University of Kentucky where he studied under Gurney Norman and Ed McClanahan and won their Dantzler Award in fiction. While in college he had already begun a career in construction, an industry he followed throughout his career. Now retired, he was able to finish this novel he had been working on for over twenty years.



Forage by Rose McLarney. New York: Penguin Poets/Random House, 2019. 67 pages. Trade paperback, $20.00.

Rose McLarney is clearly the fastest rising young poet from Appalachia today.  The Fellowship of Southern Writers gave her their New Writing Award for Poetry, and she has been awarded fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and has served at Poet in Residence at Dartmouth.  In an interview published in the New England Review she describes Forage in this way: “I’ve been describing Forage as comprised of intricately sequenced poems on themes including animals’ symbolic roles in art and as indicators of ecological change and how water can represent a large, troubled system or the exceptions of smaller, purer tributaries. At the confluence of these poems is a social commentary that goes beyond lamenting environmental degradation and disaster to record—and augment—the beauty of the world in which we live. Forage, like my previous work, does deal with history, place, and the environment. But it’s less about the particular home environment in which I grew up—in the southern Appalachian mountains—and losing it (by leaving to find work and to cultural change), and functions more broadly as ecopoetry. It also reckons more fully with Southern heritage. In my life insulated in the coves of the mountain South, before moving to Alabama where I live now, the land of cotton and its exploitation, I was not aware enough of what it means be ‘Southern.’” “These poems in their gorgeous imagistic clarity deepen the story of life and ask of us, as the poet asks of herself, ‘to whom / have I made reverence truly known?’ And what does the poet revere? The word, the wounded land, the wile of the wild, the shade of trees. An earthly constellation." —Alison Hawthorne Deming. “These poems stun me with their keen eye and their honest telling of what they view. It’s refreshing to find this much courage on the page, at a time when we need it the most." —A. Van Jordan. “"Elegant . . . readers will revel in the work's undeniable beauty and smarts." —Publishers Weekly. A native of Western North Carolina, Rose McLarney earned her MFA at Warren Wilson and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Auburn.



Allegiance by Gurney Norman. Lexington, Kentucky: Old Cove Press, 2019. 203 pages. Trade paperback, $22.00

It is well-known that Gurney Norman is a legendary figure in Appalachian life and literature. Now well into his 80s yet still teaching creative writing full-time at the University of Kentucky, he experienced both a traditional and an unusual childhood in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1960, he received a Stegner Fellowship to study at Stanford University, then reported for the Hazard Herald in the middle1960s. His novel, Divine Right’s Trip (1972), first published in the Last Whole Earth Catalog and then as a hardback and mass market paperback, turned America’s Westward Movement literature around as it chronicled the return of Eastern Kentucky hippies from California back to Kentucky.  It was followed five years later by Kinfolks, The Wilgus Stories, which still stands as arguably the best fictional portrayal of mountain life in the early ‘70s. He has been teaching at UK since 1979 and was Kentucky Poet-Laureate in 2009-2010. This book, Allegiance, understandably published as a story collection, actually amounts to an only slightly embellished autobiography. Told in the first person, many of these refreshingly short stories amount to additions to Kinfolks. Others are out-takes from the novel, Crazy Quilt, that Gurney Norman has played with for decades now. And a few are additions to Ancient Creek: A Folktale (2012). These stories are more personal and more revealing for those of us who have enjoyed hearing Gurney Norman tell stories or who have read his books over the last few decades. At the same time, they are bound to be fascinating to those who have never ever even read or heard a Gurney Norman story.