Issue 2:1 | Review | Kathy Sohn

Book: At Home in the Heart of Appalachia

Author: John O'Brien

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf 2001, Hardback $25

Reviewer: Kathy Sohn




The title of John O'Brien's book, At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, drew me immediately to want to read it, since I have felt at home in Pikeville, Kentucky, in the central Appalachian highlands, for 27 years.  My affinity for the region resulted from growing up in North Carolina and experiencing prejudice from those who connect a southern accent with lower intelligence.  For centuries, Appalachia has suffered ridicule based on region and dialect.  During my tenure here, I have read many representations of the region by authors born in and outside Appalachia, so I looked forward to what O'Brien had to say.


Defining Appalachia is difficult.  Like my Kentucky neighbors, O'Brien's West Virginians do not label themselves "Appalachian." They identify themselves by their hollow, town, or state, but if asked what Appalachians are like, they might respond as O'Brien's grandfather did, "Beats me by jacks.  Never run into one." Or like his neighbor, they might say, "Where is this Appalachia, and why do they think I live here?" O'Brien learns "that Appalachia was an imaginary place and that being Appalachian was imaginary but terribly damaging" (16). With hopes that he might begin to understand more about his family and the region, O'Brien moves his spouse and young children to Franklin, West Virginia (the birthplace of his spouse, Becky) in 1984.


O'Brien begins to define Appalachia based on its unparalleled beauty and reminds me of what keeps us living in the mountains.  The oldest mountain range in our nation, the Appalachians are like an old grandmother, comforting those within her arms.  O'Brien loves the outdoors, a legacy of his father, and draws pictures of the seasons with his prose:  "After a winter of pewter skies and gray afternoons inside, it's wonderful . . . to be out in the open air and feel the soil under a rake or hoe" (177).  His descriptions throughout the book illustrate how much at home he is in Appalachia.


According to O'Brien, outsidersmissionaries, politicians, corporationshave defined the region, often to suit their purposes of making it homogeneous with the nation or to exploit its natural resourcescoal and lumber. Tracing the history of how missionaries in the past identified Appalachia as unchurched when in fact the region was already Christian, O'Brien reminded me of Loyal Jones' observation that "never have so many missionaries been sent to save so many Christians as has been the case in [Appalachia]" (4).  Those agents of "uplift" were not going to be content until all Appalachians conformed to their mainstream definition of religion.


This historical invention of Appalachia (Batteau) explains the town of Franklin's negative reaction to the Woodlands Institute established in 1973 by two "Ivy League Ph.D.s" (64).  Founded with money from the Nature Conservancy, the institution purported to be a place for students from the Washington-Baltimore area to experience the outdoors as well as to provide counseling for troubled individuals and families; its mission changed continually during the time O'Brien's lived in Franklin.


Though not religious in orientation, Woodlands was missionary in intent, and they "continued to shoot themselves in the foot"(152) by pushing their programs and by not alleviating local people's fears.  The story of resistance to Woodlands culminates in two emotionally charged town meetings that occur when the townspeople receive the news that the Institute has secured legislative permission from the state capital, Charleston, to take over the local school.  Though O'Brien states that some of the town's reaction may have arisen out of fear and provincialism, he reveals in this event how strongly Appalachians want respect on their terms, to be in control of their lives which might not necessarily be what outsiders may think is best. From my experience as an outsider, I learned that outsiders moving to the region must be careful, watching and listening for awhile, knocking any chips off their shoulders because ultimately we are their guests not their saviors.


Insiders within Appalachia define themselves based on class and can often be more biting and destructive than outsiders' definitions.  O'Brien learns about this from his experience of teaching school for one year in Franklin.  After his C-level class unexpectedly wins a field day competition, a mother of a B class student comes over to him and says, "This is the first time I've seen lowlife ignorance win something" (225).  Those who are or who are aspiring to be middle class want to distance themselves from the "hillbilly," working class image of Appalachians.


In this book, O'Brien's primary definition of Appalachia exists in relationship to his roots.  He  grew up in Philadelphia, one of ten children born to Appalachian-born parents who moved away from Piedmont, West Virginia, in the 1940s because of the lack of work and the disgrace of his grandfather's public suicide. The first part of the book describes the positive gifts his father gave him, gifts he has passed along to his son:  love of vocabulary, subsistence living, hunting, fishing, and gardening.  The author fondly remembers family trips to West Virginia with his parents, though he notices some discomfort on his father's part during those visits.


Their relationship begins to deteriorate when John announces that he is going to college.  His dad reacts by laughing at him and saying, "we [have] our place in the world and trying to change it [is] dangerous"(32). O'Brien chooses to attend college because "the thought of living like my dad depressed me. . . . I thought college might help me escape his life" (33).  O'Brien also hoped to counteract his dad's fatalistic message which went something like: "Keep your head and expectations down, and you might slip by unnoticed.  Don't be making too much of yourself in your mind. . . . Hope create[s] disappointment and ambition invite[s] tragedy" (23). Later in the book, his dad visits him in West Virginia only to insult him for writing fiction ("a pack of lies") and labels his son a "bullshit artist" (229).  Clearly his son's success clearly threatened his father.


O'Brien's definition of self based on his fractious relationship with his family resonated in the essays of working class academics in This Fine Place So Far from Home, a book edited by Dews and Law which considers the estrangement most academics feel when they return to their home community more educated than anyone else in their families and in jobs that have moved them upward in class.  It reminded me of a down home lecture many Appalachian parents give to their children who go to college: "Don't get above your raisings!"  Though many working class parents truly want a better life for their children, O'Brien's father did not.


While I thoroughly recommend this book, I located some problems.  First, I was disturbed by some misinformation.  O'Brien credits Olive Dame Campbell, the founder of the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, with the founding of the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky; Katherine Pettit founded the school (Whisnant). Second, I found it ironic that when he returned to Appalachia to find his roots, O'Brien never mentions visiting his father and mother's families, the O'Briens and the Bells, in nearby Piedmont, a place he often visited as a child, until the day of his father's funeral (which he decides not to attend). 


Finally, O'Brien's focus on Appalachian fatalism disturbs me the most.  He believes that his father's despair "had a great deal to do with . . . Appalachian fatalisma profound sense that you are fundamentally inferior and that life is absurd and hopeless" (24).  He ends his book with a reflection on his male ancestors:  "It comes down to fathers and sons. Who owes what to whom?  Where does trouble begin and end?  Sometimes I think my grandfather, father, my son, and I are variations on a single personality meant to carry some dark message" (303). Because those inventing Appalachia have labeled fatalistic thinking as one reason Appalachia falls behind the rest of the nation (though the region's problems are too complex to oversimplify with a single cause), I fear that readers might make the same inference when the fatalism could be an O'Brien family trait.


Despite those objections, O'Brien presents a compassionate view of the region, and I am pleased that Knopf Publishing, a national as opposed to a regional press, recognized the value of the book; it will reach a broader audience.  The book is also doing reasonably well in Amazon ratings.  O'Brien knows the heart of Appalachia is not place-bound but possibly person-bound. His father's Appalachian roots exist in him, and he is passing that to his son. O'Brien achieves a reconciliation of sorts by writing this book and listening to his own heart where perhaps he is more at home than ever before.


Books Mentioned in  Appalachian Fathers, Sons, and Hearts

Batteau, Allen W.  The Invention of Appalachia.  Tuscon, AZ:  The U of Arizona P, 1990.

Dews, Carolyn Leste, and C.L. Barney Law.  This Fine Place So Far From Home:  Voices of

Academics from the Working-class.  Philadelphia, PA:  Temple UP, 1995.

Jones, Loyal.  Faith and Meaning in the Southern Uplands.  Urbana, IL:  U of Illinois P, 1999. 

Whisnant, David E.  All That Is Native and Fine:  The Politics of Culture in an American Region. 

Chapel Hill, NC:  U of North Carolina P, 1983.