Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers

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Generosity was both an insurance police and a deeply held value.

Kentucky born Cassie Chambers grew up in Owsley County, all too aware of the hard-work and struggle her grandparents and their children dealt with. Cassie parents were both still working their way through college, living in Berea but close enough to her Mother Wilma’s family when they had her. With the impossible cost of childcare, they relied on those in Owsley to care for her, and it is here that Cassie ran around ‘getting into trouble’ and playing with her many cousins. It was a second home where she was privy to stories about all her aunts and uncles. It is also where she wondered why it was so important for her granny to see her mother Wilma get a college education, when for many it was never an option.

Working on a tobacco farm (Wilma’s family didn’t own it) was backbreaking labor, more incredible was her Aunt Ruth who was the best tobacco worker in the county, better than even some of the strongest men. Rising early in the mornings to help when she stayed with her kin, she saw firsthand that it was never an easy life. Her granny was just as hardworking, even at her advanced age and despite the poverty and years of struggle, she always had her pride and an easy smile for others.  It was through spending time with her clan that Cassie’s curious nature was fed, where she learned hands on science, engineering and art. With her parents as an example, education was a goal knew she must strive for. So how did this young girl whose family tree is deeply rooted in Appalachia find the wherewithal to attend Yale and Harvard, becoming a lawyer?

Obstacles in the mountains of Kentucky can feel insurmountable when each day is a struggle just to feed one’s family. When there isn’t work to be had, when you live below government-designated poverty, when the counties haven’t developed like the rest of the country and the rest of the world has forgotten you. Where all politician’s promises fall by the wayside once they are in office, if they even notice you at all. Here, one must wrestle with leaving the support and strong bonds of family to find work, and anyone who has ever attempted such a thing without money (even with a college degree) understands it can be quite a feat. Staying can feel easier, but it is not without hardship. An education, as seen through Cassie’s rise and the opposite end, as we see with her cousin Melissa’s choices, is jarring. As Cassie reiterates, they are the same in so many ways, born from the same stock, branches on the same tree yet Melissa had drug addicted parents. Drug addiction haunts the hills, there isn’t much hope in a place that offers nothing for it’s young by way of entertainment, where health care is shaky at best, where the coal mines were never as big as in other counties and tobacco farming collapsed. This is a land where fields are left empty and yet they are a proud, strong people. Where women throughout generations help in birthing children, because there isn’t anywhere else to go and if there is how can they afford the proper, necessary care?

Outsiders see only poverty and like Cassie says, feel pity and disgust, never getting past the surface to understand why natives feel such a connection to the land, generations in their family. Through the fear she and other women in her circle feel navigating the world outside rural Appalachia, it is evident how much courage it takes to strive for more. To judge the people as ignorant is a travesty, for they have learned how to exist in the past through feeding themselves and each other growing their own food (I have a garden, it’s not easy at all and has more failure than success), have worked with the harsh elements to survive, helping birth children, and her own granny could take apart anything and put it back together for the better. Stupid? Not one bit. Lazy, pitiable? No way! By returning to lift those in need, with her education in hand, it is inspiring. Women, in this memoir, lifted each other even while they themselves had nothing. Ruth, the older sister, was selfless providing in every way she could for Cassie’s mother Wilma so that she could find a better life. This support, in turn, made Cassie’s future possible too. It warms the heart see such generosity come from people who have so little. That the rest of the world looks down upon people, like Cassie’s Papaw whose work was backbreaking and long, far harder than anything most of them have ever done, is shameful. These are folks, especially the women, who somehow manage to feed their children while working their weary hands to the bone and still feel a sense of duty to their community while keeping faith in their god by living what they preach.

This is a tribute to the women whose grit was passed down to Cassie. Rather than bemoaning their circumstances, they get things done and often in creative ways. Like Cassie said, there is no such thing as “I can’t do it.” It wasn’t easy for Cassie to work hard, to step outside the comfort of her family and assimilate into an elite place (Ivy League schools) but with the strength of her family’s blood running through her veins, she wasn’t going to give in to self-defeat, it isn’t their way.

Hill Women is a heart-felt, engaging telling of one girls rise from poverty that was only possible through the love and support of the strong, wise women before her.

Publication Date: January 7, 2020

Ballantine Books

 

Travels with Foxfire: Stories of People, Passions, and Practices from Southern Appalachia by Foxfire Fund Inc Phil Hudgins and Foxfire Student Jessica Phillips

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They thrived by making do, and when change came, they drew on their basic wit and common sense to adapt rather than simply surrender to it.

I’ve never had the pleasure of reading Foxifire books, but when I saw this for grabs on Netgalley, I had to read it. I am fascinated by all things Appalachia, it’s such a shame that their culture is changing so much, as all things must. What better way to preserve the history and stories than in a collection of interviews? Several of the people have since passed away but not without leaving an indelible impression. Stories of bootlegging, hunting, water dowsing, and ‘where the music dwells.’ I have a particular fondness for the section on arts and herbs in the story of Eve Miranda, Medicine Woman. It’s an art form understating herbs, plants, root knowledge and all its healing properties. What a wonderful inheritance to pass down the family line, and there is something endearing about a woman who shares the knowledge she has gathered. I would read a book just about her. Following her tale is the Hayes Boys story, the gatherers of wild ginseng. Maybe not everyone finds plants to be adventurous but they can be!

There is humor in the interview with “Privologist” Mary Frazier Long. Having grown up in Southern Appalachia  she lived in a time where she had to use the outhouses. The funniest tidbit to me is, ‘You knew not to go see certain people at certain times, ” Long recalled “because that’s when they were in the outhouse. You could look out and see when they were going.”  I think the majority of us have grown up with indoor plumbing, so it is a curious thing to imagine.

Music too is deeply rooted in the heart of Appalachia. I admittedly never knew so many songs were taken from classic ballads and folk songs from the Appalachian Mountains and made popular by artists like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. I did, however, love to sing a song with my cousin by The Kingston Trio titled “Tom Dooley” and knew it was a ballad based on the murder of Laura Foster. Why were we singing it in the 90’s? Likely found the record in my grandmother’s stash. Gospel, Bluegrass, there is a heavy influence coming from the Appalachian Mountains most people don’t realize.

Yes, many of the folks in the interviews are now elders, the remaining witnesses of a time that is slipping from our fingers. A rich source of history, folklore, and knowledge that isn’t easily obtained. They are the sort of folks you’d love to spend an evening with as they regale you with tales from their lives. Some of that living has been hard scrabble or dangerous. If you’re curious about mountain living, this is for you.

It’s an enjoyable collection, which has made me curious about the Foxfire books as it became a way of sharing food recipes, traditions, and life on the mountains. It’s a wonderful way to preserve history and reminisce, with the start of the collection aptly titled “The Way It Was.”

Publication Date: August 18, 2018

Knopf Doubleday Publishing

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