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.

Amish Facts of Life in a Changing World by Gerald S. Lestz

While visiting with family on a horse farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – Amish country – I had so many questions that they lent me this little book. It’s a pamphlet, really, at just 71 pages. And despite the title, a publication date of 1978 means it remains quite dated: for example, “mortgages for several hundred thousand dollars might be eyebrow-raisers among city folk” amused me. That said, I still learned a lot about the Amish way of life – maybe the Amish way of life in 1978, but the idea is that it doesn’t change that much, right? And in conversations with my hosts here, it sounds like quite a lot of what I’ve learned is still true.

Author Gerald S. Lestz is not Amish, but he has a good relationship with the community, who let him spend time in the one-room schoolhouse he profiles here, for example. His five essays can easily stand alone: “An Amish Teacher and Her School,” “Amish Pay High Prices to Keep Their Farms,” “The Diary: An Old Order Newsletter,” “Amish Story in Wood Carvings,” and “Demand Soars for Amish Quilts.” I think I enjoyed the school part the most, perhaps because it’s an area that interests me anyway; I am intrigued by the question of whether the school board allows the Amish to self-educate and take their kids out of school early. But each of these essays had something that piqued my interest.

Lestz is not impartial. He admires his subjects, and thinks we should all learn from them. Check out this description of one of the lovely wood carvings he features, by Aaron Zook:

Home prayer takes place every evening, and this is a touching scene. It is in the large kitchen of an Amish farm home. All members of the family are kneeling. The father is reading the prayer. Studying this, one can understand why the Amish way of life persists, and why there is so much goodness and so little crime among its members.

I do think the Amish offer some interesting solutions to some of our societal problems, but I think it’s a stretch to say that a kneeling family scene equals low crime and goodness. At any rate, you see the bias. And fair enough: it’s right out there where we can see it, which is always nice, if there’s going to be a bias at all.

The purpose of this slim book is education and information, not entertainment or artistic accomplishment. Lestz’s writing style is simple and forthright (notwithstanding his “paraphrase [of] Gertrude Stein in the negative: you can no longer say a quilt is a quilt is a quilt.” Clever, that). But it’s information I wanted, and I’m happy to have it. (I supplemented this read with a few issues of local rag The Fishwrapper, a little more treacly and Jesus-y but not unhelpful.) I’m glad I read it.


Rating: 6 vendues.

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.

The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape by Suzannah Lessard

This broad social-historical consideration of American landscapes will satisfy and challenge the most serious reader.

Suzannah Lessard (The Architect of Desire) offers a broad cultural examination of place in The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. The result is a work of great scope that’s grounded by an interest in landscapes, the forces that shape them and how they in turn reshape us. Lessard chases big mysteries. “Always behind my readings of landscapes are the questions, Where are we…? and What is our relationship to our surroundings now?”

Lessard begins with a close description of “the village” where she lives near Albany, N.Y. She then travels outward, to visit a nearby friend and consider suburbophobia, and therefore the history of the suburbs–as foil to the city, as military defense concept, as commercial center, as “edge city.” Having considered terms like sprawl, metropolitan area, edgeless or stealth city and more, Lessard uses “atopia” to refer to landscapes “where contemporary development, directly expressing contemporary times, was unrestrained.” She is also quite interested in “online” as a place, from its origins in Cold War strategy through the option it provides as escape from real places.

Lessard is at her best when handling the ways place and people interact (Disney’s attempt to build a history theme park just south of Washington, D.C.), and on shakier ground when handling larger issues (market forces versus governmental powers). One of her finest chapters considers a mall in King of Prussia, Pa., and the tensions and challenges facing shopping malls across the country.

As Lessard shows, Cold War policy, the Depression, the legacy of slavery, racist housing policies, nuclear armament and more have all played roles in the development of the suburb and the contemporary landscape. Mixed in with these references, Lessard often cites works of art–Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Han vases–as means to understand place.

Lessard can speak from a place of economic comfort that may grate some readers, but the value of her decades of research is undeniable. The Absent Hand is often dense, as Lessard draws upon centuries of human history to make her arguments. In this ambitious work, place is examined, deconstructed and incrementally illuminated, even as our landscape changes anew.


This review originally ran in the February 19, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 paintings.

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.

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Thorough research, engaging storytelling, fascinating stories and a history of obscurity make this investigation of queer Brooklyn a compelling, essential read.

When Brooklyn Was Queer achieves everything one could want in a history: meticulous research, easy-reading narrative, fascinating small events within significant larger ones, and personal interest. Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, investigates a very specific slice of history all but erased by prejudice and the passing of time.

The idea of Brooklyn, N.Y., having a significant queer history surprises many present residents, but Ryan cracks open what looks like a blank slate and finds richness there, beginning with the 1855 publication of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman represents an early association with Brooklyn and with white men who have sex with men (people of color and queer women did not appear in the historical record yet). From here, Ryan covers periods of growing visibility through turn-of-the-century newspapers and the theater; the rise in criminalization and persecution of queers in the 1910s; and the quick expansion of both the queer scene and Brooklyn at large in the 1920s.

The Depression, the end of Prohibition and the Hays movie code brought new strictures on a vibrant world of bars and cruising venues. Mobilization for World War II offered great opportunities for queer people, as men joined the armed forces and women went to work in factories and shipyards like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the war, a societal move toward conservatism, the suburbanization of New York City and the shutdown of Brooklyn’s waterfront lead to what Ryan calls “the great erasure” of queer community and history.

When Brooklyn Was Queer considers the lives and contributions of well-known artists like Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Truman Capote, and numerous lesser-known performers, businesspeople and blue-collar workers. Painstaking research and attention to detail highlight the richness and mystery of stories that have been largely hidden until now. Ryan is careful to point out the challenges of this kind of research. During many of the years covered here, homosexuality as a concept was unknown: a man could have sex with men but be “normal,” or he could be a “pervert,” based solely on appearance or mannerism. Vocabularies for such identities were at first nonexistent and varied over time. And much of the information collected about queer people in history is deeply problematic, recorded by hostile and prejudiced organizations, and presumably with limited cooperation by the people being studied. Finally, Ryan is sensitive to the intersecting limitations faced by women and people of color.

Only in his introduction and epilogue does Ryan share his personal connection to these stories, his own history in Brooklyn and his heartfelt desire for this history to be told. While the rest of his book takes the style of traditional history writings (no “I” pronoun), he reaches out in the final lines: “I look forward to having a future where we can also have a past, and I look forward to creating it with you.” Having been engrossed in these pages, his reader feels that same connection and hopefulness.


This review originally ran in the January 31, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 windows.

A Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner (audio)

To write about this essay collection, I must first tell you about the format.

From my research, it looks to me like the collection exists only on audio, and only on audiocassette. I bought the set of two cassette tapes some years ago, and have had them all this time, waiting for a way to listen to them. The only cassette player I could locate in my friends-and-family circle was a desktop item my father dug out of the attic for me; but its volume only goes so high, and Stegner came out of the machine so low that I could only hear him if I pressed my ear against the tape player, which I quickly tired of. (Thanks anyway, though, Pops.)

Then finally a friend bought me this outstanding gift: a cassette-to-MP3 converter! Who knew! Thank you so much, Margaret; it was a shame to use it for just the two tapes, but hopefully the guy I passed it on to gets some use out of it with his old rock tapes. Anyway, I was finally, after years of ownership, ready to listen to my Stegner as I drove north across west Texas.

And it is Stegner himself reading, which I think is a nice bonus, although he does have a bit of a somnolent monotone. The essays are not titled; he simply rolls from one into another, so that I was rarely clear on when one ended and another began, although changes of subject serve as loose guides. It’s an intriguing problem, the format of these essays and their absence from the world otherwise. I am a bit interested in transcribing them myself for posterity, if I could find the appropriate person to work with on that project. Hmm.

Now on to the essays, yes? I enjoyed listening. Stegner has a lot to offer: he has known several corners of this country very well at several times in particular, and he specializes in detail and color (literally and figuratively, as in “local color”). He can be relied upon for commentary about conservation issues, and although his positions sound a little obvious in 2019, coming from 1989. His storytelling style is soothing, especially read aloud in that drowsy voice of his. I do wish I had these on paper to read and look at; as it was, I had to let the stories and reflections wash over me, which was pleasurable, but leaves me with less to say for this review.

I made a few short recordings of lines that appealed to me. I have no idea what essays they are from.

The Wasatch in Utah… taught me the feel of safety… A man can tuck back in against mountains, the way Hemingway used to tuck back into the corner stool at Sloppy Joe’s, his back covered and all danger in front of him.

(Guess why I like that one. That would be Sloppy Joe’s in Key West; I’ve been there.)

We manage to breed saints, brutes, barbarians, and mudheads in all sorts of topographies and climates, but what country does to our way of seeing is another matter, at least for me. By and larger I do not know what I like, I like what I know.

I wish I had the line that came just before, too: his point was that topographies and climates don’t make people who are smart or stupid, moral or evil. It’s a point that’s important to me. People judged for their geographies is becoming a pet peeve of mine. And that last line: “I do not know what I like but I like what I know.” It makes sense somehow.

Every night in season [the frogs] conducted love concerts that could drown out conversation even inside the house. Stamp on the patio bricks and they fell silent so suddenly from such a crescendo of noise that the silence rang like quinine in the ears, the sort of silence I’ve heard nowhere else except in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

Silence rang like quinine! What an unexpected simile; and I’m not sure exactly what it means, not knowing what quinine sounds like in one’s ears; this is a line that I think would get picked apart by certain creative writing professors I’ve known, but I appreciate it. I don’t know what quinine rings like, but the surprise pleases me, and I’m willing to take it on faith that that was some silence, whew. Now, the Amazon jungle as a place of silence I trust a little less: I imagine a jungle being rather a noisy place, what with all the life going on there, the peeps and rustles and dripping that surely must be going on. But perhaps Stegner has been to the Amazon. I have not.

There were other startling lines, and worthwhile observations. I wish I could share the text of these essays with you. Barring that, take my word for it, unless you have a tape deck and $16.48 (which will buy you the tapes right now on that other Amazon; more from AbeBooks).

Even with all the hassles it took me to listen to A Sense of Place: worth it.


Rating: 7 names.
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