Appalachia is one of those words that encompasses a universe and leaves each of us to form our own ideas of what it means. For me, to use one example, Appalachia ties into the back-to-the-earth movement popular when I was a kid. The Foxfire volumes, collecting the magazine of the same name put out at the Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia, taught us all how to butcher a hog and plant by the signs, and since my grandmother swore by the latter, Foxfire was an essential grab at the library every spring.
The University of Illinois Press goes way back in its commitment to the study of the region. Today we move away from big picture topics to home in on a few of the people that hailed from Appalachia and lent their stories to the ongoing epic of American life.
Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell, by Sharon Hatfield
In 1935, free-spirited young teacher Edith Maxwell and her mother were indicted for murdering Edith’s conservative and domineering father, Trigg, in their Wise County, Virginia, home. Edith claimed her father had tried to whip her for staying out late and, according to her story, she defended herself by striking back with a high-heeled shoe. The Hearst press dubbed Maxwell the Slipper Slayer and overnight remade her into a national celebrity.
Sharon Hatfield transforms this dusty piece of history into a vibrant thriller. Advocates of women’s causes championed Edith Maxwell as a martyr while national magazines ran with her story. Out west, Warner Brothers created a screen version. Out east, Eleanor Roosevelt helped secure Maxwell’s early release from prison. Hatfield’s brilliant telling of the true-crime sensation blends a portrait of the crime and its aftermath with trenchant analyses of yellow journalism, the inequities of the jury system, class and gender tensions in a developing region, and a woman’s right to defend herself from family violence.
The Stonemans: An Appalachian Family and the Music That Shaped Their Lives, by Ivan M. Tribe
Journeying from their native Blue Ridge Mountains to the slums of Washington, D.C. to the Nashville spotlight, the Stoneman family lived decades of country music. Relying on interviews with family members and friends, Ivan M. Tribe chronicles a clan that, through good times and bad, clung to their musical heritage and doggedly pursued a vision of their native music.
As early as 1924 Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman realized the potential of what is now known as country music and commenced to carving a career from it. Though successful as a recording artist from 1925 through 1929, Stoneman foundered during the Great Depression. He, his wife, and their nine children went to Washington, D.C. in 1932, struggling through a decade of hardship while working to revive the musical career Pop still believed in. The Stoneman Family eventually triumphed. In 1967, the group won the Country Music Association’s Vocal Group of the Year Award. After Pop’s death a year later, some of the children scattered to pursue their own careers.
A Hard Journey: The Life of Don West, by James J. Lorence
A pioneering figure in twentieth-century Southern radicalism, Don West lived him a life. Initially drawn to activism by religious conviction and driven by a vision of an open, democratic, and nonracist society, West was also a passionate advocate for the region’s traditional values.
A Hard Journey brings Don West to life: the poet, ordained Congregationalist minister, labor organizer, educator, leftist activist, and one of the most important literary and political figures in the southern Appalachians during the mid-twentieth century. James J. Lorence balances West’s literary work with his political and educational activities, placing West’s poetry in the context of his fight for social justice and racial equality. Lorence uses previously unexamined sources to explore West’s early involvement in organizing miners and other workers for the Socialist and Communist Parties during the 1930s. In documenting West’s lifetime commitment to creating a nonracist, egalitarian South, A Hard Journey shines the spotlight on a pioneering figure in twentieth-century Southern radicalism.
Pistol Packin’ Mama: Aunt Molly Jackson and the Politics of Folksong, by Shelly Romalis
A coal miner’s daughter, Aunt Molly Jackson grew up in eastern Kentucky, married a miner, and became a midwife, labor activist, and songwriter. Fusing hard experience with rich Appalachian musical tradition, her songs became weapons of struggle. In 1931, an illustrious circle of left-wing intellectuals—including Theodore Dreiser, Alan Lomax, and Charles and Pete Seeger—”discovered” Jackson and brought her north. Along with Sarah Ogan Gunning, Jim Garland (two of Aunt Molly’s half-siblings), Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, and other folk musicians, she served as a cultural broker, linking the rural working poor to big-city left-wing activism.
Shelly Romalis draws upon interviews and archival materials to construct this portrait of an Appalachian woman who remained radical, raucous, proud, poetic, offensive, self-involved, and in spirit the “real” pistol packin’ mama of the song.