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Appalachia: Spirit Triumphant
A book filled with numerous first-person interviews; those individuals who lived and worked in the southern Appalachian coalfields. All of the events that have formed Appalachia today
8.5" x 11"
, 261 pages
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General
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This book has numerous first-person interviews with those individuals who lived and worked in the southern Appalachian coalfields. The people tell of their struggles through coal mine tragedies, union wars, floods, industrialization and often being at the mercy of the Federal Government. All of these events have formed Appalachia today. It has prescriptions for reform, celebrations of things that are worth preserving for the modern world, and paints a unique portrait of mountain people in their own words.
A book of hope
Finally, someone has written the book that I’ve always wanted to read, told for and by the people – true West Virginians. In so many magazines, periodicals and books, there is a defensive-ness about our state. It’s like they’re saying, “We’re sophisticated just like people all over the country.” But we are so much more than that. We are unique. We have a rich and vivid history, a heritage that refuses to be homogenized. I’m proud of my heritage and I like the idea of being distinctive, “standing out from all the rest” and being descended from tough, mountain people, mothers who could make a meal out of nothing and fathers who never missed a day’s work.
In “Appalachia: Spirit Triumphant, a cultural odyssey of Appalachia” Dotson-Lewis has chosen the perfect title for her book. It is an odyssey, a journey through time, one that I was caught up in from the first paragraph. Dotson-Lewis’ love of her and “our” Appalachia is apparent in every word choice, each sentence. In what must have been an exhaustive research task, one can see that her work sprang from real joy and enthusiasm. I felt like a traveling companion as I read, marveling at her ability to seek out and record these invaluable stories and photos that are so beautiful and clear, each one is a novel unto itself.
This is an important book, one so honest and passionately written, that it could force change within our government as it portrays what is happening to our state by wealthy out-of-state interests and how extremely little compensation and empathy our workers and citizens are receiving as a result. Lewis vividly shows the poverty in the state, which is sometimes caused by the failure of government programs to understand what the people really need. There is apathy, but it’s a result of the lack of concern on the part of the state and federal government.
The book is a composition of real life stories told by real life people, narratives from political figures and Dotson-Lewis’ own superbly written narratives. She takes us all the way back to the Civil War, including photocopies of letters written by a Confederate soldiers of that time. I learned more about history in this book than I ever learned in school. World War II is also covered as many veterans and their wives are still living and remember those horrible times. The Korean War, which some have called the “forgotten war” is not forgotten by Dotson-Lewis nor the veterans who spoke of it. And of course, the heartbreaking stories of theVietnam War. There is one in particular that is perhaps most representative of that entire era. Flavie Ellison II was riding in a helicopter when the pilot was literally shot out of his seat. The co-pilot was severely wounded also. Before the co-pilot lost consciousness, he gave instructions on all the dial and switches. Ellison managed to fly one-hundred miles, an hour’s flight and land the helicopter. He spoke of his return trip home and how he and his buddies planned how they would celebrate being back “in the world” by kissing Mother Earth and how they would rub the dirt into their hair. Upon their leaving the tarmac some war protestors threw rocks at them, hitting one of the brave soldiers who had just survived the hell of war.
There are remembrances and stories of the coal mines and coal camps. The conditions were brutal to work in back in the thirties until the union formed and made the government pay attention to the sweeping changes that would take effect over the next seventy years. My favorite “coal camp” story was about a woman named Grace who lived in Logan County. Her family and friends say that she always scratched out a garden in her little yard from which she canned vegetables and fed anyone in need, that she never turned anyone away. “Saved by Grace” took on a whole new meaning in this story. It reminded me of my own mother and the stories she told of her mother, which takes us back to the Depression era. It is chronicled too with all the hardships that mountaineers found ways to deal with and overcome.
Having been raised in and around mining areas, I can tell you that coal camp life is not all bad. In fact, it was a good life. We found ways of being happy. We had the mountains for a playground and slate dumps for a roller coaster. I had a wonderful childhood and though there were sad times, I remember many times of laughter and genuine happiness. Like our memories, “APPALACHIA: Spirit Triumphant, a cultural odyssey of Appalachia” is not all gloom and doom either. Quite the opposite, it is a book of hope and as the title says, triumph.
Before I turn this review into a book, I’ll sum it up like this. I never got tired of my parents’ stories and I didn’t get enough of them. They are gone now and there are many questions I’d love to ask them. I’d love to interview my Mawmaw too, who raised three children alone during the Depression. My grandfather died when my father, the youngest, was only twelve and Mawmaw managed to raise them by sewing for people in her little town. Like most grandmothers, she focused on us and didn’t talk a lot about herself. How I would love to ask her about her childhood memories, if perhaps her father or grandfather was in the civil war. This is all lost to me now.
Dotson-Lewis’ book is like this to me: Imagine that your granny and pawpaw live just around the hill a-ways. You take the winding path to find them alive and filled with lucid memories. They still live modestly and independently as they always have. You go inside their little cabin to find a roaring fire and the smell of coffee. Pawpaw, says, “Youngin’, get in here and let Granny get you a cup of coffee.” Finally, all settled around the fire, you ask that question you remember from childhood, “Mawmaw, Pawpaw, tell me a story.”
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