The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels

Disclosure: Carter Sickels (ed., Untangling the Knot) has taught at my MFA program in the past and we have some mutual friends. He was not there during my studies and we’ve never met.


A gorgeous, transcendent book, this novel just captured and held me. I read it in a single sitting; I couldn’t look away. I was drawn in. It was often painful, but often beautiful, and magnetic throughout. I am so grateful to have read two books in a row that received a rare rating of 10 here at my little blog.

The Prettiest Star is set in 1986. Brian is 24 years old when he decides to leave New York City, where he has lived for six years, and return home to small-town Chester, Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills. He is dying of AIDS; his partner has died, along with so many friends and loved ones, and he can no longer stand the city, filled with its reminders of the past. “Home” in Chester is not exactly a friendly place to return to. His father can scarcely acknowledge him, and will certainly not acknowledge that he is gay, let alone his HIV status. His mother feels only a small measure more tenderness, and responsibility, to her son. His sister Jess, now 14, was just eight when he left. No one has bothered to tell her anything about her brother, who she once worshiped but who is now a stranger. The extended family and the larger community don’t offer any better hope of tolerance, let alone support, with one exception: his paternal grandmother, Lettie.

The story is riveting, the characters beautifully nuanced and believable. I think it’s a victory for a novelist to write a character like Brian’s mother, Sharon: we recoil from her intolerance of her son, but we can also sympathize with her misunderstandings of the world. I don’t mean to be an apologist for bigotry. But Sickels is artist enough to show us that it’s not that black and white. (Also, 1986 was a different world.) I have a harder time feeling compassion for the father, Travis – but take note: Brian, Sharon, and Jess all get alternating chapters giving their points of view. Travis gets only one, at the very end of the book. The author’s choice not to let me into his head absolutely contributes to his being more enigmatic and less sympathetic.

Jess is a perfect teenager, conflicted about her body, boys, other girls, her place in the world; crazy (and very smart) about marine biology; rightfully (I feel) upset that the family doesn’t trust her enough to share certain facts about her brother. Each character felt perfectly wrought. I really responded to Brian’s struggles with memory and memorializing, with his own mortality (unimaginable), with his unasked for role(s) as gay and HIV-positive in a community’s gaze. He’s a regular guy, and an artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him.

Sickels’s choice to alternate chapters from the first-person perspectives of Brian, Sharon and Jess was a good one, I think; it let me triangulate a view of the household and get to know several very well-written characters, and feel empathies in tension with each other, which is life. Another layer to this storytelling method: Brian’s sections are the transcripts of the video he shoots, on cassette tapes, with a camcorder (because 1986). He’s documenting his life (and therefore his death). So where we get Sharon’s and Jess’s POVs in the usual novelistic style, as if we were sort of in their heads, we get Brian’s voice more intentionally: he knows he has an audience, although he’s not quite sure who that audience is. (He occasionally addresses his dear, fierce friend Annie, who comes to Ohio to enter the story at a few points.) He’s consciously recording his life, what he sees and thinks and feels, which makes for a different narrative voice than Sharon’s or Jess’s.

Now here I am. Alive, in Ohio, where we do not speak of the dead. Let us pretend. Where are all my beautiful men?

I love it – it contributes to a tone of elegy, of speaking from a beyond, of looking back in time, all of which feels appropriate to this story because of its subject matter, and because it was published in 2020 about 1986.

Let’s talk about that time for a minute. I saw Sickels read from this book and discuss it at a pandemic-distanced event alongside Paul Lisicky promoting Later. (I had planned to attend this event in person, but here we are.) That event prompted me to preorder the book. Sickels took a question about whether this novel is historical fiction, which I found interesting. I was taught in library school that historical fiction is defined as being set in a time period before the author‘s lifetime – meaning, it’s not about the timing of the reader’s experience of the book, but about whether the author mines a lived timeline or one that is historical to him. Without Googling Sickels’s age, I’d venture that he was alive, but young, in the 80s (like me). We are at an interesting distance from this time period: it was less than 40 years ago, easily in living memory of many of us who are alive now, but it also feels remote in a few ways. For one, technology is almost unrecognizably changed, and was a defining feature of that decade. There are lots of satisfying period details to this novel – clothing, food, music, technology. I think the (clunky, heavy) camcorder that Brian uses to document his life is a neat choice as an eye on this story, because it sets some of the stage props (if you will). Another defining element of the 80s is the AIDS crisis as epidemic and as a failure of social and political systems to support disenfranchised populations, like the gay community. In too many ways, we’re not doing beautifully at the same sorts of issues today, but we’ve come a long way too. To look back at the 80s feels like looking a long way back, although it’s not actually that far away, either. That weird contradiction feels important to me.

Bowie fans will recognize the book’s title, and the titles of chapters. Disclosure: I don’t know Bowie well, so I don’t know how deep the references go. (I have recommended this read to my buddy Dave, #1 fan.) For someone like me, it served as a little background flavor. Possibly the whole thing is filled with references I missed. At any rate, the smell of the 80s is here. The video documentary is an inspired choice, I think, as narrative device as well as for staging. The alternating chapters work beautifully. The characters are expertly done, and the plot moves at an irresistible pace and with such momentum – so feeling, powerful, important to me – that (again) I was never able to stop reading. I think it’s a near-perfect work of fiction.

The subject matter is well handled, I think. It’s important that we keep telling and hearing these stories. I thought Brian’s life was treated sensitively and not as a type, or a cause, or anything like that. Obviously I very highly recommend this book, but I know that some readers will find this material especially painful, even triggering – I guess I haven’t said it outright, but there’s plenty of nasty homophobia in the story. It’s hard stuff; I cried for at least 50 pages. But it’s also really beautiful, and I found it all worthwhile.

I’m so glad I read The Prettiest Star and it’s one of the best of the year for sure.


Rating: 10 photographs.

Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia ed. by T. J. Smith

Decades of carefully collected oral storytelling and local lore from Southern Appalachian culture offer a singular perspective.

Since 1966, Foxfire has been educating and working to preserve local heritage in Georgia’s Rabun County. The organization has published the Foxfire magazine for over 50 years, and more than 20 books. But Foxfire’s archives are still rich and deep enough to furnish mostly never-before-published material in Foxfire Story: Oral Tradition in Southern Appalachia, a collection of folktales, stories, mountain speech, pranks, jests and much more gathered over the decades.

Editor T.J. Smith–Georgia mountain native, Ph.D, folklorist and Foxfire’s executive director–groups these materials into categories: anecdotes come from personal experience and often contain a punch line; folk beliefs connect us to cultural or religious communities and are sometimes known by the pejorative “superstition.” Proverbs and sayin’s include colloquial comparisons: sharp as a tack, a needle, a briar, a pegging awl. Legends include ghost stories and tales of treasure hunts. In a second, shorter section, Smith organizes additional storytelling by the teller. Here, Ronda Reno recounts the tradition in her family of the “granny witch,” or herbalist/midwife/community healer. Cherokee storyteller Lloyd Arneach describes his art form and how it grew, almost by accident, into a career.

The legends, folktales, songs and stories in this collection are often unsophisticated, portraying ways of life that are dying out or already gone. They shed light on endangered occupations, economies and ecological niches. With Smith’s commentary, these unaffected narratives and usages (git-fiddle: “term for guitar in the context of old-time string music”) offer a glimpse of a world otherwise unavailable to many readers.


This review originally ran in the May 1, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 5 panthers.

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg

A keen, thoughtful inquiry into relationships, place and the forces that contributed to a 1980 crime.

In The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, Emma Copley Eisenberg offers a true crime story as well as a painful look at misogyny and estrangement; a gorgeously rendered memoir of human relations; and a sensitive, perceptive profile of a misunderstood region.

In 1980, two young women were hitchhiking to a Rainbow Gathering (one of a series of events that attracted as many as 20,000 hippies) when they were killed and left in a remote clearing in southeast West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. A third young woman had parted ways with her hitchhiking companions just before they died. Eisenberg’s title points toward her fascination with this character: the one who, apparently by a stroke of luck, lived. Locals told conflicting stories about what had happened. More than a dozen years later, a local man was tried and convicted, then later won his freedom in a new trial. An imprisoned serial killer claimed responsibility, but was considered a less-than-reliable source and was never tried for these crimes.

The Third Rainbow Girl is an incisive, thoroughly researched work of true crime reporting. Eisenberg visits those close to these events–the accused, witnesses to the trial, lawyers, police investigators and local bystanders–and forms her own loose theories, while acknowledging how much will never be known. The book’s mastery, however, is in how much more it accomplishes. “If every woman is a nonconsensual researcher looking into the word ‘misogyny,’ then my most painful and powerful work was done in Pocahontas County. It could have been done in any other place, because misogyny is in the groundwater of every American city and every American town, but for me, it was done here.” Importantly in this region that is oft maligned, Eisenberg lived in Pocahontas County for a time, forging relationships and grappling with her place in the world; she begins to bridge the differences between Appalachian insider and outsider. Part of her work is indeed to study misogyny, the relationships between genders and the responsibilities and challenges of those, like herself, who wish to enter a troubled place and “do good.” This book is as much about gender and political and social relations as it is about a specific crime. In brief sections, it also contains an outstanding account of the historical forces that shape present national attitudes toward Appalachia.

Eisenberg’s gaze is unflinching, whether turned on a traumatized community, an unlikeable but probably innocent man or upon herself and her own tendencies. Her prose is incandescent, precise, descriptive and often lyrical: a medical examiner testifying at trial has “a face so pink it looked slapped” and her first time spent
working in West Virginia at a camp for girls is “dense and crackling.” The narratives of the murders, of the investigations and trials and of the author’s Appalachian life intertwine and comment on one another. The result is a subtle, steadfast examination of the sources of pain and trauma.


This review was written for Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade, but is published for the first time here.


Rating: 9 music nights.

One of the things I appreciated here is that Eisenberg was sensitive to the local perspective and her position as outsider (because even after months or years here, you go easy declaring yourself to be an insider). Unlike Ramp Hollow, this book cites sources from within the community (like Sugar Run!).

author interview: Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my review of Matt’s Appalachia North, here is the interview we conducted, also published at Still: The Journal in their Fall 2019 issue.

Julia Kastner: You write about Sean Prentiss’s book, Finding Abbey: “He also journeys into himself, something I doubt he understood at the beginning of his project, even if it lies at the center of his book.” Did you understand, at the beginning of your project, what journey you were on?

Matthew Ferrence: The short answer is no.

The longer answer has to do with the process of publication itself…

Please click over to read the full interview. Thanks again to Still for publishing this work!

Appalachia North by Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my earlier review, I am so deeply pleased to shared with you today this review in the Fall 2019 issue of Still: The Journal.

Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North is both memoir and outward-looking examination of place: what it means to be from somewhere, how our relationship to home can change, and the complicated and too-often negative role Appalachia plays in the national imagination, and in its own.

Ferrence was forty when he received a life-changing diagnosis…

Please click over to read the full review. Look for my interview with Matt on Friday. And many thanks again to the Editors at Still for considering and accepting my work.

Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll

I read this socio-historical study of Appalachia in part to investigate my new homeplace (however temporary) in central West Virginia.

It is quite good. Steven Stoll takes a wide-angle view of “the ordeal of Appalachia” (centering on West Virginia), which he sees as a social, political, economic, ideological problem that fits into global patterns. He compares the experiences of Appalachians with those of other groups across time and place: in particular, English peasants in the 1600s, American Indians in the early 1800s, and Malian smallholders in the 2000s. As he draws these comparisons, he is careful to note that “no two dispossessions are the same.” On the other hand, “historians emphasize the distinctness of the stories they tell. They tend to make few observations across places and times,” and Stoll I think does us a service by making those observations. For one thing, I find it makes each story clearer to have analogies to draw from. For another, as he shows in these pages, the story of Appalachia has been told in a way that oversimplifies, and blames the poorest people with the fewest options for their own situation. To contextualize those experiences within world history and within patterns makes it clear that this is a story about humans and their systems and about capitalism, not about a specific race of holler dwellers.

At the risk of simplifying, again, what has been well communicated in nearly 300 pages here… Stoll argues that what has gone wrong in Appalachia, what has resulted in devastating extractive industries, wealth flowing only outward, the impoverishment and degradation of local residents, environmental destruction, and damage to a culture, is about the forced movement from makeshift agrarian economies to capitalism and industrial scales. (The term ‘makeshift’ for household economies is not intended to be disparaging. Stoll spends time with this. What he refers to we might call subsistence living: a combination of small-scale agriculture and husbandry, hunting and gathering, and local and regional trade that yields a sufficient or comfortable living with no stockpiled profit. It does not indicate an absence of currency.)

The enclosure of the commons is a central element in this shift. The ecological base that used to be used in common by all for timber, hunting and gathering, fodder for livestock, and rotation of small garden plots was enclosed and divvied up as private property following the American Revolution, largely to absentee landowners. Later lumber and coal mining industries robbed that land of the richness that had once provided, so that now if we were to return to the commons model (something Stoll cautiously recommends, with a drafted piece of legislation late in the book) that base will not yield what it used to. Part of that shift as well involves a shift from makeshift or subsistence economies – I make what I need, plus enough surplus to feel secure – to growth-at-all-costs capitalism – make as much as you can and then make more by any means possible; seek efficiencies; clearcut. And part of that is a move from largely self-sufficient households to currency-based wage-earning ones. (Again, Stoll is careful to point out that there never was a makeshift household that provided all its needs – trade was always a component of any system – and that currency is not in fact absent from, for example, barter economies.) Well, these 300 pages do a better job of it than this paragraph does. But it’s a gist.

I appreciated the breadth of history, sociology, politics, economic theory, and more that Stoll employs to teach these lessons. It’s a broad and rich book. And I appreciate as well that he consults so many outside sources, and not just academic ones. While the tone and style of this book is still rather dry and textbook-y, its reference points include fiction and the visual arts as well as primary sources, journalism, and fellow academics. I dig the interdisciplinary result: that one can see policy unfold alongside environmental change, social history and the arts. The writing style is no-nonsense informational, lacking the personal perspective that I prefer, and with no especial sense of fun. It’s better than the classic history text in style. But it still took me longer to read, in smaller pieces, than my usual fare.

I regret that Stoll doesn’t appear to have invited local opinion or sought specifically Appalachian experts. His back-of-book blurbs are all from professors at either Columbia or Yale. And one characteristic of this region, one of its challenges, is the tendency of outsiders to judge; Appalachia, in my observation, is sensitive about that. I wish Stoll had sought a blurber from within the region! It’s not like there aren’t academics from Appalachia, and I know it would have earned him credibility in these parts. I guess that wasn’t a priority; I don’t think he’s writing for a specifically Appalachian audience, and that’s fine, but this oversight I fear means he’s written for an audience from everywhere but Appalachia. [Please note that I make these observations as an outsider, myself; these opinions are my own and do not reflect those of etc. etc.]

On these lines, a very brief section of this book is likely (again, from what I’ve seen) to raise hackles here: he devotes about a page to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, mostly nodding in agreement, although he does acknowledge that “it might be construed as saying that the tragedy of Appalachia is the sum of its individual failings or the insularity of its families.” Here’s a tip: praising Vance within Appalachia will make you no friends.

I also note that Stoll doesn’t address the nonhuman community that Brian Doyle and Terry Tempest Williams and my father and I recognize: he worries for the fate of people, chiefly, and I appreciate that he wants better for a disadvantaged population which has been taken advantage of. He seems concerned as well for the rich and biologically diverse hills and mountains of a unique geographical area, but I think this concern is chiefly for what that land could offer people. I would personally rather he also cared for rivers and cougars and mushrooms for their own sake, but his is the majority perspective, that’s for sure.

While I wanted to note these issues I found with Ramp Hollow, I admire it and I learned a lot and I do recommend it as a way to put “the ordeal of Appalachia” into a larger context and understand some of what’s challenging here, and why it’s not the fault of the people here who are unfortunately characterized as lazy, backwards, or primitive. This book is well researched, with over 50 pages of notes and a thorough bibliography. I consider it a great introduction to a lengthy and complicated history, and I’m so glad I read it. Thank you, Doug, for my copy.


Rating: 7 morels.

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

Appalachia North: A Memoir by Matthew Ferrence

Disclosure: Matt Ferrence was visiting faculty at this past winter’s residency at WVWC, and we really hit it off; I think he’s great, and he gifted me my copy of Blue Highways.


A shorter review now, with more to follow, because Still: the Journal has agreed to published my book review *and* an interview with Ferrence in their October issue. Hooray! For now, a teaser.

Building a literature based only on darkness is just another way to shackle ourselves to decline. Instead, we are who we are, and that’s the sound of red-winged blackbirds chirping in the blowing reeds alongside restoration wetlands, a dark plain bird with a hidden flash of brilliance, the real marker of hope.

You know I’m on an extended trip right now. I’ve been keeping track of birds, among other things. In the mid-east-coast area, I started to see red-winged blackbirds, which I don’t recall ever having seen before. They are a delight, that shock of bright red underlined by bright yellow on black-black background. I saw just a few, and then lots of them, diving and swooping and chattering at one another, plentiful as grackles. I looked them up, and see that they live where I’m from, too. How come I never saw a red-winged blackbird before?

This book is a little like that, for me. The recognition of something I didn’t know I needed, although it seems thoroughly obvious now I’ve seen it. And it’s from where I’m from, too. The synchronicities like this kept stacking up. Matt’s parents and my dad all love Wendell Berry, although his took it a step further and farmed on the farm they purchased when he was young, while we kept our city home even after purchasing a ranch when I was young. We’ve struggled with similar questions about where we’re from. My brain injury and his brain tumor are different, but also alike. Even the Facebook surveys we each put out about our home places, Pennsylvania or Northern Appalachia, and Texas. I can’t tell you how many times I scribbled “me too” in these margins. I don’t usually scribble anything in the margins at all, but when Matt sent me Blue Highways, I learned something.

Okay, then.

This book is that blend that I love best in nonfiction: both memoir and outward-looking examination of something larger than the self. Ferrence grew up on a farm in southwestern Pennsylvania. He didn’t know it yet, but he was born and raised in Northern Appalachia. At forty, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Appalachia is a much-maligned and little-understood region of this country, at least from the outside. Northern Appalachia is less understood, and (as Ferrence has it) exiled from both Appalachia and the U.S. He examines the geology and geography of sedimentary rock, mountains, and his own brain through many layers of metaphor. He pulls in plenty of outside voices: writers he admires (Abbey, Dillard, Sanders), and some he takes issue with. That’s another duality I deeply appreciate, that balance between one’s own voice and the voices that have informed it.

That’s all I want to say, in advance of Still‘s October issue – I will repost my longer review, and interview with Matt, when they’re available. For now, please know that this book caught me in that perfect place: both personally resonant in all the deepest ways, and an intellectual and artistic accomplishment I admire and would like to emulate. This is one of the most highly recommended books of 2019. And I don’t care who you are and where you’re from: you have something to learn from Appalachia North. Get out and get you a copy today. You’re welcome.


Rating: 9 collection points.

movie: Hillbilly (2019)

Disclosure: I am a degree or two removed, socially, from some of the folks involved with the making of this film.


I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.

–Jason Howard

I found Hillbilly deeply moving, beautiful, and appreciated the diversity of people it put in front of the camera.

I heard about this film from several sources at once, all of them sympathetic, and some of them personally connected; the above quotation (which you know resonated with me so strongly) comes from Jason Howard, who’s been guest faculty at WVWC during my tenure as a student there. His husband Silas House is an executive producer. So I came in with a positive preconception, and it was rewarded. I was surprised (but perhaps shouldn’t have been) to see the negative reviews on Amazon; the “top reviews” were all critical of its political stance (“this is a liberal agenda documentary be forewarned”). Well, fair. I think the film’s perspective was clear from the start. As I watched, I kept thinking of confirmation bias and where we all start out from when we enter a project like this, either as creator or viewer/consumer. My politics align with those of Ashley York, co-director and narrator/”face” of the film, in many or most ways. I appreciated what she’s done here. Those with different politics are likely to appreciate the film less. As much as I loved watching it, I was left kind of sad, too, that we can’t do more real listening to each other.

Not for lack of trying on Ashley’s part. Within the narrative of the film, she introduces herself as an Appalachian native from Kentucky who now lives in Los Angeles. As the 2016 presidential election draws near, she realizes how far apart her pro-Hillary politics are from those of her pro-Trump relations, chiefly her Granny Shelby. So she travels home to talk to Shelby and others, hear their side. I am so glad somebody’s trying to do that work; little enough of it seems to be happening. Ashley is respectful and listens quietly as her family explains why they support Trump. There was not the dialog here that one might wish for, but maybe Ashley was shooting for some level of journalistic neutrality? A separate issue… Speaking of issues, there wasn’t really any discussion of issues or stances, or the gap between Trump’s talk (coal! jobs! economy!) and his concrete plans for action. In the end, this film is less about politics than it is about culture.

I empathize with Ashley’s experience some, especially when she points out how difficult it is to hear a majority-progressive community throw Trump supporters out in one homogeneous basket, in their thinking. This is especially difficult when you come from a place where you’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the people in that basket, and know them as individuals. “They” are no more homogeneous than “we” are. Her uncle tells the story of serving in the military and being ridiculed and rejected by his fellow service members – it was worst in California, he tells her, “no offense” – and he chokes up, saying that he never found the brotherhood he’d sought. I don’t care if you hate his politics, that’s a sad moment. I don’t think “we” liberals gain anything by making fun of people we don’t agree with.

A good chunk of the movie deals with media portrayals of Appalachians. Deliverance makes an appearance, of course. Ashley visits with Billy Redden, who played Lonnie, the younger, hillbilly half of the “Dueling Banjos” scene. He works at Wal-Mart; he got paid $500 for his part in the movie; he hopes to make it to California one day. That Appalachians or hillbillies have gotten a bum deal with Hollywood, there is no question. The rest of us, somebody in the film suggested (I’m sorry I can’t say who), get to feel better about ourselves by making fun of “them.” There’s also some treatment of the history of the region, including the fact that when big business saw how much money there was to be made by extractive industries (coal, for one), it was convenient to evolve from treating hillbillies with gentle contempt, to viewing them as sinister and depraved: people from whom we should definitely take things away.

As a summing-up of a region, its history, its culture(s), and its current contradictions, Hillbilly does a neat job; it is necessarily incomplete, but what do you want from an 85-minute film? I’m so glad that it put people of color and queer people at center, too (and discussed the strange portrayal of Appalachia as white when in fact it’s quite diverse, skin-tone-wise). Any time we sum up any place, we’re going to resort to generalizations that can range from inadequate to damaging. Considering these truths, I think this movie does as good a job as it could have. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it that way. I’m just trying to acknowledge the inherent shortcomings of the form, and of any attempt to portray a place with more than, I don’t know, a couple dozen people in it.

Hillbilly gives us Election Night 2016 again, “live,” as it were, and I found it painful all over again. Silas House and Jason Howard speak with some emotion about their feelings – Silas seems to feel betrayed – he has spent his life defending his people (I paraphrase) and (he implies) they have failed to defend him with their votes. He turns to Jason: “You always say you love Appalachia. You don’t feel it loves you.” Jason replies with the line at the top of this review: “I just think no matter where anybody’s from, if they’re honest with themselves they’re gonna have a love/hate relationship with where they’re from.”

I just wanted to repeat that because I find it so true. Thank you, Jason, and everyone involved with this film.


Rating: 8 questions.

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Disclosure: Mesha is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


Sugar Run has been getting a lot of press, and it’s well deserved. This is an astonishing novel.

Jodi was seventeen years old when she was sentenced to life in prison. Eighteen years later, she is surprised to find herself paroled. She never thought this would happen, even as the lawyers and appeals pressed forward around her. Now she steps out the gates and is surprised to see that she’s been surrounded by mountains all these years in Georgia – mountains she couldn’t see, but that make her feel just that much closer to the mountains of her West Virginia home.

Jodi heads south before going home, though, to track down a boy she should have helped all those years before. She is surprised to find him transformed into a man she does not recognize; if time stood still for Jodi in prison, it hasn’t for the rest of the world. In short order, Jodi collects as well as a partial family in crisis; as she drives a new friend’s Chevette into rural West Virginia and up the mountain she calls home, the life and hopes she’s building may already be falling apart.

In flashback sections, we learn as well about the past, chiefly the buildup to the crime that got Jodi life in prison as a minor. The cast of characters is not small: Jodi’s mother, father, beloved grandmother, and younger twin brothers; Paula, a woman important to Jodi in her youth, along with her parents and brother; Jodi’s new friend Miranda, estranged from her pop singer husband, with three young sons and a coterie of associates; and the inhabitants of the West Virginia hilltop Jodi returns to, from fracking workers to activists and the locals she’s known all her life – or at least for its first seventeen years.

It’s a remarkable story. For one thing, the lives of Appalachian lesbian women are not much seen in literature, and women in prisons are somewhat underrepresented as well. (Mesha teaches writing in a women’s prison, so she has the research to back up that element.) But equally importantly, as a plot, it rips. From Jodi to Miranda, from past to present, the reader is kept totally absorbed (I would like to thank Mesha for getting me through six hours in the waiting room of an auto shop). It’s a fully realized world to fall into.

I also appreciated the strong sense of place. Jodi is deeply committed to her late grandmother’s cabin and property on a hilltop threatened by extractive industry: a classic West Virginia story, in a way, but one thoroughly fleshed out and real here. The place itself is described as carefully as the characters are. I realize that I’m portraying this book as both character- and plot-driven; it is also about the sentences, which weave and wend and take their time painting pictures as much as moving either plot or characterization along. Pacing-wise, it might be mid-range. The plot has momentum and keeps me turning pages; but the sentences take time for beauty.

This is a fine and multi-faceted novel, and I love it. Congrats, Mesha.


Rating: 8 hands.
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