Many of the folk portrayed in this volume belong to a vanishing culture—they are hillbillies. This is a moving, intimate look at the mountain people of Southern West Virginia, considered by many as the epicenter of the Appalachian expanse, all the way from Maine to Georgia, following a ridge line that extends for more than 2,000 miles.
Appalachian Chronicles does not profess to be a sociological study full of facts and figures. Rather, it is a look into the soul of a small, almost totally cut off world. Some folks are sustained by their religious beliefs; some are supported by welfare; some are disconsolate about their future—but all are survivors of a culture that no longer has much use for pioneers or the proud pioneer spirit of their forefathers.
This book offers a tough and yet touching tribute to them all. It brings a quietly fading region and its people to life through their talk, their attitudes, and their behaviors. And it is refreshingly devoid of both condescension and pity. On the contrary, the work presents a dramatic and remarkable addition to the faint and feeble literature that exists regarding the mountain inhabitants of this amazing, historic province.
The sly country wit and wisdom contained in the volume is reminiscent of folklore and myth brought to the region by settlers in the early 18th century, those seeking religious freedom and sovereignty over their own lives. By establishing residence in the greater Appalachian wilderness, away from the so-called civilized mechanisms of government, the independent-minded immigrants could operate their whisky-making stills with impunity—in other words, without fear of official reprisals or taxation.
Appalachian Chronicles outwardly reveals an acceptance of the Hillbilly way of life, for ever since their ancestors left the debtor prisons, moors, uplands and heaths of their native Britain and western Europe, mountaineers seemingly have cultivated a genuinely independent spirit. Many still live by the same confidential codes and protocols of a people apart, a people nourished by values and principles of their own earthly spirit.
Their families are like many others who have lived in the Appalachian conclave for centuries. They are tight-knit and fiercely devoted to one another. A few are hot headed at times, but they are basically good while treading a fine line of civility, graciousness, politeness, and courtesy toward outsiders who occasionally wander, often uninvited, into their rambling, yet strategically segregated, neck of the woods.
And though these hillbillies are far from the evil-incarnate parodies, spoofs, and satires of which they are often labeled and branded by the mainstream culture, they are perhaps, among the most misunderstood spirits in America.
I wrote this book after getting acquainted with my subjects over decades while working as a feature writer and photojournalist with local newspapers. By living among them and listening to them, I won their confidence and trust by allowing them to speak for themselves. I wanted to portray the mountain folk as real Americans, people with hopes and dreams; to show the goodness and strength of a people who will not be defeated in their quest for the life that was carved out for them by their ancestors.
Because of the many hardships and struggles mountaineers have faced in the past, some have adopted the pathetic attitude that the world does not care about those who are poor and essentially isolated in their remote backwoods’ residences.
Never having anything better in life to look forward to, they often dwell on the problems of the past and embrace a fearful mindset that their children will also become caught up in the endless cycle of poverty, getting pregnant at a young age, not finishing school, and lacking minimal skills.
As a result, relatives often choose to live in a multi-generational family unit out of necessity. They hang together in tight niches and intimate circles, where they can fend off threats from those who might want to do them harm.
All persons have a personality blueprint: traits, values, and other qualities that make them unique and interesting to us. For many of the mountain folk who live on the cusp of a rapidly changing society, this blueprint is the bedrock of who they are, setting them apart from other mainstream Americans.
Because of emotional wounds that are already embedded in their psyche from years of depravity and discontent, the typical mountaineer character is rife with insecurity and mistrust.
Many believe that the system is rigged and have no aspirations to escape their dismal dilemma, often experiencing hunger and going without life’s essentials and feeling overwhelmed when monthly bills typically all come due at once.
Perhaps they want to follow their passions and dreams but remain crippled and haunted by the negative voices of their past. Fear, self-doubt, and uncertainty are all part of the human baggage they lug around each day. Their universal need to grow and prosper is thwarted by tough choices and painful consequences, as well as the disruptive nature of change.
Meanwhile, most mountaineer folk are supremely lacking in the contexts and informational windows that would allow them to better navigate their lives. They suffer a shattered unity that plagues their spiritual stamina and resilience. Their psychic and emotional wounds from a lifetime of struggle cannot easily be dispelled, erased, or forgotten.
These people of the hills and hollows of Southern West Virginia likewise have experienced painful events, including those of their formative years, feelings of not always belonging or not being loved. Their backstory is laden with disappointment and a beaten-down, trampled, banged, and crushed pattern of turmoil. It comes from repeated episodes of trauma, humiliations both in the workplace and in their neighborhood network, even from the crumbling trust relations within their own hillbilly beliefs.
A spiritual darkness often pervades the mountaineers’ daily environs as they try to keep the balance between survival and surrender, between pleasure and discontent, between happiness and despair. No doubt, their collective character tries to understand or rationalize their painful experience, only to falsely conclude that the fault somehow lies within. Once they begin to question their own identity and self-worth in a world of societal solitude, they are driven to desperation with no place to turn and no one to turn to.
It is little wonder, then, that the tribe of a once fierce and courageous pioneer culture seemingly has faded from the landscape of life.
Because they are slow to warm to newcomers, strangers frequently, and understandably, perceive them standoffish and sullen. Overall, trusting people, taking them at their word, letting them in—all these things have contributed to past hurtful experiences, so they now place limits on some activities and interactions that often work against them, depriving them of a sense of belonging to a larger human community.
Still, for the most part, mountaineers yearn for higher levels of worthiness, respect, and trust. They would like to be valued, appreciated, and recognized for their contributions to their community.
We all need to attain fulfillment through the realization of our skills and resources, through pursuing and achieving meaningful goals, seeking knowledge, attaining spiritual enlightenment, embracing core values, principles, and an identity that gives our lives meaning.
Very few of these needs are being met in the seemingly hollow and sterile realm that exists in many parts of the Appalachian narrative.
Change does not come about easily. It is often painful. It takes great courage to step into the unknown.
Top o’ the morning!