Saturday, April 19, 2008


At Home in the Heart of Appalachia by John O’Brien

New York: Alfred A. Knopf – 2001
$25.00 –306 pages

I left my father’s house. Oh, I was moving.
But I noticed I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I was living in somebody else’s house.
I kept stepping out of somebody else’s door
and the road I traveled kept winding, twisting.
had no beginning, had no end.
...Well, I went home.
“Brier Sermon,” Jim Wayne Miller

At Home in the Heart of Appalachia begins and ends with regret. The narrative of this wonderful book is tinged sadness due to the author’s estrangement from his father. In fact, part of his yearning to return to the mountains of West Virginia is prompted by the hope that he will be able to fish, hunt and talk to his father again. Unfortunately, the gulf between the two men cannot be bridged. James Patrick O'Brien died in 1995, leaving his son with a profound sense of guilt and an anxiety that he might repeat the cycle and alienate his own son. When the author “returns” to Appalachia, he is determined to forge a bond with the region as well as provide his family with a sense of place. It is a daunting mission and this book – part memoir, part social commentary – is a compelling history of his continuing struggle (1984 – 2001). It is also a passionate treatise on Appalachia in terms of “myth and fact.”

O’Brien actually returns to Appalachia twice: once with his father in 1952 (a failed attempt), and again in 1984. Born in Philadelphia but nurtured by his father’s tales of West Virginia, John came to feel that his father’s home was/is his home, too. As he became disillusioned in
teaching and urban life, suffering from recurring bouts of clinical depression – a condition affected by his alienation from his parents – O’Brien makes a desperate bid. He will transport a wife, a reluctant teen-age son and a daughter, to Franklin, West Virginia. Once there, he will learn not only to survive, but to understand Appalachia – and he will write a book about his experience. In the process, he becomes one of the region’s most ardent “interpreters.”

At Home in the Heart of Appalachia has much to say about Appalachian fatalism – that condition that renders an entire culture either stoic or strangely passive in the face of adversity. Essentially, it is the condition that made his father’s life a failure O’Brien is also haunted by the image of his grandfather, a “three-time suicide” (he poisoned, stabbed and shot himself). At heart, Appalachian fatalism is the belief that efforts to overcome obstacles such as poverty and social injustice are futile. However, O’Brien takes the concept further. The unspoken conclusion – that mountain people are inferior because they do not have the capacity to improve their lot – is covertly endorsed by the people themselves. And we are meant to endure our condition, not strive to escape it.

Using his own father as a painful example, the author discusses the way Appalachia is perceived by the outside world and how we (by “we,” I mean mountain folk!) are caught up in a process by which we become someone else’s idea of what we are: feral hill-billies in strap overalls and granny dresses who clog, make moonshine and murder each other. Indeed, O’Brien’s most passionate observations on the nature of mountain folk are provoked by the contrast between what the outside world thinks we are and what the author knows us to be from his own personal experience.

In West Virginia, residents who are not native to the region are called “come heres.” It is not necessarily a derogatory term, but it is also true that some of West Virginia’s most profound problems have been fostered by the “come heres.” – corrupt politicians from Washington, robber barons who schemed to own the state’s natural resources (and succeeded), and possibly the greatest plague of all, the missionaries. Of course, “missionary” is an all-inclusive term that embraces a diversity of groups dedicated to “saving us from ourselves.” Educational institutions, philanthropic societies and politicians in conjunction with misguided religious organizations (AMA) have created some of the region’s most devastating problems. Among the well-meaning culprits, O’Brien lists the Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics, VISTA workers, War on Poverty workers, Appalachian Volunteers, the Appalachian Regional Commission and a host of free-lance radicals. As one of the author’s friends notes, “We have been damned near saved to death.”

It may come as a shock to many readers to learn that the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys feud owes more to a media which was controlled by outsiders. Certainly, it was to a robber baron’s advantage to have Appalachia defined as a land rich in natural resources, but filled with “strange people” who are inbred, intellectually deprived and dangerous. At best, these descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants were “child-like and ignorant.” Magazines and newspapers outside the region published elaborately posed photographs of “Appalachia’s Poor,” barefoot and poorly dressed children who lived in dire poverty. The “local color” movement in America created caricatures of mountain folk who fulfilled the image of a people who were benighted, comical and/or “other” – unclean, unkempt and
lacking in social grace.

O’Brien notes that it is little wonder that the people of Appalachia have come to view the outside world with suspicion since most families can cite graphic examples of how their families have been misused in the past. Abandoned mining towns and derelict lumber camps still testify to a failed economy produced by the ravages of greed. The region is filled with polluted rivers, abandoned farms and eroded hillsides while 98% of the profits earned by the depletion of natural resources went to “outside interests.’

Yet, there is beauty here, and O’Brien finds it, rendering the coming of fall, the silence of snow-swept valleys and the experience of fishing a fog-shrouded river with loving details. The descriptions are filled with quotes from Yeats and Wallace Stevens. Further, he etches the portraits of people who represent the “real folk” with the same sensitive detail as he
gives to the night call of the barred owl behind his home. Despite the problems created by a misguided experimental school in his home town, the author perceives the mountains and the people as abiding and unchanged. Indeed, conflicts created by yet another host of “come heres,”
merely reveals the natives at their best – stubborn, unchanged and admirable.

Possibly, the most endearing passages of the book have to do with the coming together of O’Brien’s neighbors and relatives. His participation in a family reunion (his wife’s relatives) in Cass, West Virginia is especially moving. Here in a valley filled with NRAO satellites, (“We are listening to the stars!”) several hundred Blackhursts and their kin come together. The gathering is emotional and affectionate; O’Brien’s description suggests the creation of a single unity – a mystical living being composed of individuals. The section reminded me of my own experience as a child when I attended the Gibson Reunion in Macon County and waded the creek with cousins and nephews I had never seen before. It also bespeaks a time when many of us lived “in an older and better world.”

At one point, O’Brien notes that “Paradise” is always “lost,” but for him the place still exists. There are remnants of the lost beauty that we can pull together – possibly even rebuild into something durable. Perhaps it is not “Paradise,” but what is left is enough – and it can still give us an abiding sense of home.