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: Anita (2014)

At my father’s encouragement, I spent several nights in the van watching this documentary in small pieces, as wifi connections and laptop batteries permitted. This was the right way to watch it for me, anyway, because I continue to find this difficult content. Like so many millions of women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Christine Blasey Ford give testimony against a man who is now a Supreme Court justice, just last year. I have a hard time watching Dr. Anita Hill do the same. I have a hard time with the continuity of this story.

I’ve written about Anita’s story before, when watching Confirmation and reading Speaking Truth to Power (in two parts). Looking back at those reviews, I guess I’m feeling the way I did with that first of two book reviews: discouraged, traumatized. Of course, looking back at the email in which my father recommended I watch this, I see he saw this coming: “You could skip roughly the first half of the 77-minute film – it recounts the hearings with too many excerpts for us who have seen too much of it already.” Strangely, I guess that’s me, even though I didn’t watch the hearings in 1991.

For my father, the point of the film was was redemptive. (He saw it at a local documentary festival event.)

Once it shifts to Hill’s update on her aftermath, it becomes uplifting and fulfilling as it recounts the huge community of support that has buoyed her life, and catalyzed social change (such as it is). (I did not know anything about her move to Brandeis University in Massachusetts, where she has clearly blossomed as activist & educator.) By the end, there is emphasis on younger generations of women in particular.

The years since 2013 have not been as good, and the audience discussion with (filmmaker) Mock and two local women attorneys (one from local Western Washington University) was attentive to that and the Kavanaugh hearings. But I found the film personally necessary, because it counters the sad-end-narrative for Hill herself, which I had stuck in my head after her book, the recent reenactment film, and Kavanaugh. I’m sure Hill was knocked askew by Kavanaugh too, but now I know what a strong place she was in when that debacle arrived, and trust she is weathering it along with us all.

And those points are well taken, although I guess I needed reminding of that. I viewed the film’s final minutes – that spotlighting of the inspiring younger women saddling up – as positive but also disheartening again, especially because I watch this in 2019 and know what these young women, filmed in 2011-12, don’t know about the immediate future. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s hard for me to stay positive in the face of this ongoing story, but I don’t argue that that’s the right perspective. Hope is better. I’m trying.

To Anita Hill, for the 500th time, I take my hat off and thank you. As far as this film, I think Pops has it right: the footage from the hearings is essential stuff, but if you’re already well-versed, there’s nothing especially new there (and it’s hard to see them press her about pubic hairs and big-breasted women over and over again. Not as hard as it was for her to be pressed, though). The later stuff in the movie is new, even for those of us who have already worked through Hill’s excellent memoir and the very good movie Confirmation. And Pops is correct, it’s good to see how well she’s doing, and that’s she still doing the work.

The story is essential. Pick your version, for starters. You would not do badly if you chose to start here.


Rating: 7 times they made her repeat herself.

movie: Confirmation (2016)

I only found out that this movie existed thanks to my current favorite podcast, Another Round, so thanks to Heben and Tracy for that! And so timely now.

I read Anita Hill’s memoir, Speaking Truth to Power, more than five years ago. It was a powerful experience: she did a beautiful job telling her story, and it’s a hell of a story to begin with. I was nine years old when Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings took place. I don’t remember them as something I directly experienced; my knowledge of these events comes from hearing other people (like my parents) talk about them, and from reading her book.

This movie is an excellent follow-up as well. If you’re looking for an education about what happened, I suggest Hill’s book for its level of detail. But if you’re looking to grasp the feeling, the emotional truth of this time period, the movie does a good job. Hill, Thomas, and Joe Biden are all played by actors who come remarkably close to their roles not only in physical appearance but in movements, speech patterns, and mannerisms. The feelings (on one side) of shock and concern and ill-boding about what will come of all this, and (on the other side) of indignation and impatience and real threat unlooked for, are well captured. Again, as someone who doesn’t remember viewing the confirmation hearings when they happened, I spent some time pausing this movie to pull up old video from the real events, comparing both the wording and the delivery. It’s pretty spot on.

All of which means it was hard to watch. I guess there may be people out there who question the truth of Hill’s allegations, but I can hardly imagine who they might be. Not women, for one thing, because all of us women who have lived and worked in the world know that these things happen, and we know well why a woman might not speak up when it happens, as Hill’s critics kept harping on about. It should go without saying, but: I am horrified that we are seeing these events play out again twenty-freaking-seven years later with Brett Kavanaugh. Horrified.

You can read Anita Hill’s own words on this subject in an article for the New York Times: “How to Get the Kavanaugh Hearings Right.”

Weirdly, though, I found the movie less difficult to watch than Anita Hill’s book was to read. You’d think the movie would be more visceral because of its visual and aural elements. But Hill’s writing admirably matches her speaking: calm, measured tone, far from devoid of emotion but thoughtful and thorough. Like the lawyer she is, she is careful with fact and clear about where she speculates. She relies on the strengths of her arguments and the truth. I found this careful telling even more moving than the movie.

In a nutshell? A recommendation for this movie, and an even stronger one for Hill’s book. And a sound shame-on-you for our country still struggling to treat women with respect, like as if we were real human beings, and for punishing and not believing us when we speak up. I hope someday the cases of Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford will cause history students to gasp in disbelief, rather than nodding their heads in recognition of the same old story.


Rating: 8 cases.

Poetry of Resistance: Voices for Social Justice, ed. by Francisco X. Alarcón and Odilia Galván Rodríguez

Back to residency today, and so here is one of the assigned readings, for a seminar entitled “Boy Breaking Glass: Political and Protest Poetry,” taught by Mary Carroll-Hackett. (She assigned a good-sized packet of poetry and articles, additionally.)

You know that poetry often mystifies me. I struggle to release my need to understand or dissect every line and choice; but I’m getting better at that (and of course I’m in school to help me understand such choices). This collection was easier than usual for me to get behind. For one thing, it begins with a lovely foreword by Juan Filpe Herrera, and introduction by editors Alarcón and Rodríguez. These gave clarity, context and passion to the poems that follow; they made clear the backstory that yielded these works, and made their point matter to me. In a word: this collection began when nine Latino students chained themselves to the Arizona State Capitol building in 2010, in protest of Arizona’s SB 1070, the “reasonable suspicion” bill. The students’ civil disobedience was followed immediately by a poem Alarcón wrote in response; and then by the Facebook page, “Poets Responding to SB 2070,” which in turn gave birth to a spreading protest poetry movement. This book is one of the many results of that movement.

The poems selected for this collection were voted on by poet-moderators; their authors are diverse in geography and ethnic/national backgrounds; some are new and emerging writers and others are well-established. Most of the book’s contents are printed in English. Some are in both Spanish and English (and one, in Irish, Spanish and English). A minority are printed only in Spanish, so those of us less than fluent in that language will miss a few pieces, or struggle over them. I appreciated this as an effect, though.

I feel less confident about my ability to write about these poems’ content. I don’t generally review poetry. But I found this reading engaging: politically moving, thought-provoking, stimulating, and comprehensible in a way poetry isn’t always for me. I’d recommend this book to anyone, for its artistic value as well as for its political worth. That’s all I have to offer today; Poetry of Resistance has it all.


Rating: 7 poems become bread or water.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

animal farmOn my way out the door headed for the airport, I realized at the last minute that I might not have enough reading material for a medium-long flight to Seattle. I’m so glad I grabbed this slim volume – the closest appropriately-sized book to hand, off my TBR shelf. I did indeed finish the one book and start and finish this one on that flight; and I enjoyed it very much and found it thought-provoking.

Animal Farm is a classic, chilling allegory from the author of 1984, whose voice I most definitely recognized in this earlier novel. My 50th anniversary edition, from Signet Classic in 1996 (pictured), includes a preface by Russell Baker (new in 1996) and a 1954 introduction by C. M. Woodhouse of The Times Literary Supplement. I found these starting pieces noteworthy. I know a little about Orwell, have read 1984 several times, and am familiar with other early dystopian novels like Brave New World, which Baker refers to (he calls these authors pessimists), so I had a little background. Interestingly, Baker makes the very optimistic statement that the pessimists were wrong, that our current leaders (in 1996) did not resemble dictators, that technology has been a liberating force. I think there is some validity to the last argument; but there is plenty of room to criticize the power of the state today, and I find Baker a trifle breezy in his reassurances. To be fair, he is right to point out that the state has turned out to be less efficient than Orwell feared: drones and wiretaps today do not approach the effectiveness of Big Brother in 1984. At least, that’s what we think… I don’t consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but I’m not particularly optimistic about the virtues of our government leaders.

Woodhouse’s introduction is more straightforwardly academic in its analysis of Animal Farm as literature and in culture and politics, and of Orwell as an artist. He considers him a prose poet, in fact. This article was informative and critical but still accessible, and I recommend it. (I recommend Baker’s preface, too, but with salt.) The most useful part, for me, was the specific placement of Animal Farm in time: it was published in August of 1945, the same month as the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Orwell had begun writing it in 1943, following his disquieting experience in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930’s. As a criticism of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Animal Farm was not particularly welcome in the Britain of the early 1940’s.

And now the novel itself. Orwell (or rather Eric Blair, who used a pen name) calls it a fairy story; but I find the allegory blaring through loud and clear. Mr. Jones is a drunken farmer who does not always treat his farm animals with great respect or tenderness. An elder statesman of a pig (no, literally) makes a speech shortly before his death in which he predicts to his fellow four-legged residents an uprising of the animals against the people. This prediction will be carried out by the animals of Manor Farm: they kick Mr. Jones off, rename their property Animal Farm, and begin working for themselves, cooperatively. Aside from the anthropomorphism of the animals, it’s a straightforward and absolutely real tale. The pigs are the smartest – are in charge – assisted by the dogs; horses & a donkey are thinkers as well, while the birds and the sheep are followers. They come up with a list of Seven Commandments: no animal shall wear clothes, no animal shall sleep in a bed, etc. and finishing with “All animals are equal.” They make committees and call one another “comrade.” Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, struggle for power; Snowball is a better speaker, but Napoleon marshals the power of a few big, strong, brainwashed dogs, and eventually runs Snowball off the farm. The pigs begin to relish their power and to take advantage. Gradually, the rules of Animal Farm change; the Seven Commandments are amended (“no animal shall sleep in a bed with sheets”), but because very few of the subjects are literate, the pigs in charge have little trouble changing history too. Thus, it’s not that the state has changed its policies; these have always been the policies of the state. This is precisely the case in 1984 as well, where

Oceania was at war with Eurasias: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past of future agreement with him was impossible.

Chilling, I say!

Also, credit Animal Farm with the oft-quoted amendment to the final Commandment: “All Animals Are Equal. But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.”

This is a short book, just over 100 pages, and easily read in just a part of my flight. And in the “fairy story” about the animals on the farm, it’s fairly straightforward, too. But the underlying message, which doesn’t lie so far beneath the surface at all, is terrifying – and also fairly straightforward, in fact. From a historical perspective, that almost makes it that much more frightening, that these things really happened, right under people’s eyes, and not so long ago either. It’s disconcerting how easily people can be convinced to disbelieve their own minds and memories.

I continue to be a fan of Orwell, of both 1984 and Animal Farm, and despite Baker’s characterization of Orwell and Huxley as “pessimists”, I think these are important books to read today. (To be fair, he agrees: “Orwell left us a lesson about the human contribution to political terror that will always be as up-to-date as next year’s election.”) Also, the writing is pretty wonderful.

Shivers! And go read!


Rating: 9 readjusted rations.

Oil and Honey by Bill McKibben

Highly literate and expert musings on climate change, from home to the global theatre.

oil
Oil and Honey centers partly on climate change, a subject on which Bill McKibben (The End of Nature; Eaarth; founder of 350.org) is expert; but it is also personal in nature, a dualism reflected by the title. McKibben is concerned simultaneously with oil–representing fossil fuel industry practices and climate change–and honey. Having entered into a land-share agreement with his friend, beekeeper Kirk Webster, McKibben finds his home and Webster’s apiaries exerting a gravitational pull just as his political activism draws him far and wide. These two sides of his life–personal and political, local and global, analog and digital–are the focus of this combination memoir and call to action.

The subtitle refers to his journey from writer to activist, by way of 350.org and the Keystone Pipeline–a trip he did not intend but found obligatory. Activist though he may be, McKibben remains a fine writer, evocative, articulate, clever and humble in examining his mistakes. In piercing prose, McKibben unites his longstanding authority on climate change with his novice stature in the world of beekeeping. He muses on the small-scale and private implications of our changing world, which incline him to work with his family and Kirk’s bees in his beloved local community in Vermont; and likewise on the necessity for global action to combat the continuing quest for fossil fuels. Oil and Honey travels the world but always cycles back, like the seasons, to McKibben’s Vermont home, likening global systems to beehives in a manner both profound and lyrical–and important.


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


Rating: 8 degrees.

Speaking Truth to Power by Anita Hill, second half review

anitahillI am pleased to report that I had a different experience with the second half of this book, in all the right ways. You will recall (or, I will direct you to) my first half review of same: I thought it was a wonderful book but such a painful story that I had to put it down for a little while. Well, in a nutshell, the second half is: still painful, tragic, and true, but also uplifting, far more hopeful than I expected; and equally well-written and impressive. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Anita Hill continues to be thoughtful and thorough – I definitely see the mind of a lawyer at work, as she discusses the what-if’s, the precedents, the niceties of the law. She is quite cerebral in her theories on society and stereotyping; far from being a simple revelation of her experiences, this is a treatise on gender & race. She examines the relationship between issues of gender and of race, and the indivisibility of feminism from the fight for racial equality, and the relationships between race and sexism. Hill is clearly an extremely intelligent women! She is also warm and loving about her family, and always seeking privacy, not eager to be a symbol or a leader. In other words, she comes firmly across as a “just regular” person, and someone I’d like to know.

Her story is also entirely convincing. It is beautifully put together and well-written: not lyrical, but methodical, structured, can I say thorough and lawyerly again? And she preaches more hope than I felt in my first-half review. However, the battle is still not over, and I still feel upset & angry that Hill’s experience reads so familiarly more than 20 years later. On that note, I’ll refer you to Jessica Valenti’s lovely speech to my local Planned Parenthood group, here. Well said, Jessica. You give me hope, too.


Rating: 9 strong women, please.
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