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Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America: A Personal Education by Paul Salstrom

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Paul Salstrom’s alternative to mainstream America is local self-sufficiency dependent upon neighborly networking and mutual aid as practiced in Lincoln County, West Virginia, where he owns land and has lived a few times for a few months. Salstrom envisions a coming together of those who Jason Strange in Shelter from the Machine: Homesteaders in the Age of Capitalism calls the hippies and the hicks: those going back to the land – often after many generations – and those who never left but maintain an old-fashioned lifestyle. They both practice what Steven Stoll in Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia insists on calling the “makeshift economy” because he never met a subsistence farmer who wasn’t willing to do a little something for cash. This idea pre-dates Strange and Stoll and Salstrom by at least half a century. I remember Paul Goodman’s keynote to the Council of the Southern Mountains Annual Conference in 1966 audaciously entitled “Decent Poverty,” delivered to an audience sprinkled with astonished “War on Poverty” workers! Salstrom’s argument is the major theme of his book, but note the sub-title: A Personal Education. The book is basically a memoir – though he never mentions his career as an Indiana professor – that is laced with opinion pieces that range well beyond his thesis. Do beware. Salstrom is a non-conformist, and this book basically smashes to smithereens all the edicts of mainstream editors. Thus, it will probably be refreshing to some and maddening to others. Instead of zonking in on a few characters so the reader can experience some continuity and depth, this book of 212 pages before his “List of Persons” actually includes about 100 people on that list! And Salstrom essentially never shows, but rather tells his story. Editors must have used up all their urges for writers to be cinematic on other authors and got burnt out before they tackled Salstrom. “In this interesting memoir, Paul Salstrom contends that America’s culture of individualism threatens the destruction of the environment, the food and energy supply, and democracy itself. The best alternative, he argues, is a retreat to the traditional rural Appalachian culture of small farms, self-reliant neighbors, and a low-cash reciprocal economy. . . . [This book] gives us much to ponder about the future.” – Ronald L. Lewis. Paul Salstrom is the author of Appalachia’s Path to Dependency: Rethinking a Region’s Economic History 1730-1940 (2006) and a long-time history professor at St. Mary’s of the Woods College.

Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2021. 232 pages with an Index of Names, an Appendix: List of Persons, and a Bibliography. Trade paperback.