ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — “Appalachia North: A Memoir” (West Virginia University Press), by Matthew Ferrence.
Since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and the publication of J. D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” that same year, Appalachia has returned to the national spotlight as media and academia struggle to make sense of the region and its people. Who are the residents of an area that stretches from northern Alabama and Georgia, through Kentucky and West Virginia, all the way to southern New York?
Matthew Ferrence joins the debate with his new book, “Appalachia North: A Memoir,” but he’s here to clear up a few things: Pennsylvania is part of Appalachia and the area is more than its stereotypes. In fact, to understand Appalachia, one must look at its history, its contradictions and repeated attempts to redefine itself.
Using his personal story, Ferrence takes us into a world defined by its bodies of water, its hills and its defunct coal mining industry. The closed mines have polluted creeks and destroyed the economies of numerous communities.
Squatters and long-time residents remain in dilapidated homes others would have given up on. “But either because they can’t or because they refuse to leave, people tack new layers of tarpaper to the siding, or they duct-tape the broken windows, or slide concrete blocks under the worst sags, and stay,” Ferrence writes. Such realities aren’t signs of a culture in crisis, according to Ferrence, but examples of perseverance amid a changing economy.
Yet, it’s also a place of plateaus older than the American Southwest desert. It’s a place of animals and solitude that helped Ferrence fight a brain tumour. Whenever he has lived in places like Arizona or Paris, Ferrence realized he was in exile, even though he never thought of himself as from Appalachia growing up. No, Ferrence didn’t grow up smoking a corncob pipe or hearing stories of moonshining. But that’s not all that defines Appalachia.
An English professor at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Ferrence doesn’t shy away from his middle-class upbringing that sheltered him from poverty and family dysfunction Vance cited in his memoir. Ferrence’s father was a biologist and his mother was a well-read private-school trained woman from Indiana.
Still, Ferrence refuses to pass judgment as others have on the struggle of Appalachia residents and appears to be in awe of how residents carry their struggles. To him, those struggles have also defined him.
“If I am writing through the recognition of myself as an Appalachian and also through the process of seeing myself as an Appalachian writer, I have to think about journeys,” he writes.
“Appalachia North” is a lyrical homage to a region often misunderstood and overlooked. Ferrence’s engulfing prose brings to life an Appalachia north of the Mason-Dixon line and he does it with the eye of an honest poet.
Associated Press Writer Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press’ race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras
Russell Contreras, The Associated Press