15 Great Appalachian Novels That Reflect The Unique Culture Of The Region
Everyone loves To Kill a Mockingbird and Southern Gothic fare, but sometimes it seems as if southern literature lists limit their scope to stories from the deep, swampy South. As a book nerd who grew up in the Piedmont of South Carolina, I've often wondered, where are the great Appalachian novels, with the mountains and springs and black bears?
The Appalachian Region stretches across 13 states in the eastern U.S., from Mississippi to New York. The Appalachian Mountains cover even more area, moving across Maine and into Canada's Newfoundland and Labrador province.
Although Appalachia remains synonymous with uneducated, impoverished miners and backwoodsmen in the minds of many, the area's economic situation has improved over the last 50 years. From the Appalachian Regional Commission:
The Appalachian Region's economy, once highly dependent on mining, forestry, agriculture, chemical industries, and heavy industry, has become more diversified in recent times, and now includes manufacturing and professional service industries. Appalachia has come a long way in the past five decades: its poverty rate, 31 percent in 1960, was 17 percent over the 2009–2013 period.
Appalachia has a strong sense of place, and somewhat of a shared culture, even across state lines. Appalachian literature has long reflected the region's internal conflicts over tradition and modernization. Most often, these conflicts involve new advents in logging or mining that would create jobs, but destroy the land and its natural resources in the process.
The great Appalachian novels on this list are gritty. There are no mint juleps or pampered folks wilting on their porches. These are books with dirty fingernails, gravel roads, injury, illness, and death, and they are lovely.
1. Serena by Ron Rash
Tensions rise when lumber baron George Pemberton brings his new wife, Serena, to live at a logging camp in the North Carolina mountains, where he has recently fathered an illegitimate child.
2. Over the Plain Houses by Julia Franks
A logger turned independent preacher begins to suspect his wife of witchcraft after discovering her mysterious nightly journeys.
3. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
A Confederate deserter treks across country to return home to the woman he loves, who has been left to manage her family's farm with the help of a new friend.
4. Christy by Catherine Marshall
In 1912, a young woman from a wealthy family travels to Tennessee to teach impoverished students at a missionary school, where she must reconcile the residents' folk beliefs with her own faith.
5. Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, Jr.
Although not technically a novel, per se, Homer Hickam, Jr.'s Rocket Boys centers on a teenage group of friends who build homemade rockets in Coalwood, West Virginia. You may recognize the story from the film adaptation, October Sky.
6. Each Vagabond by Name by Margo Orlando Littell
A bartender in the small town of Shelk, Pennsylvania finds his loyalties divided when a group of teenage runaways builds a settlement nearby.
7. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg
A lesbian couple commit murder, open a business, and raise a son during the Great Depression in a sleepy Alabama town.
8. Strange as This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake
A West Virginia mining family must reconcile the opportunities and destruction a strip mining operation may bring to their hometown.
9. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
Eugene Gant, a restless young man living in the fictional town of Altamont, Catawba, sorts out his destiny during his time at a local college.
10. The Dollmaker by Harriette Simpson Arnow
A Kentucky woman with a talent for woodcarving must relocate to Detroit after her husband finds work during the war.
11. Oral History by Lee Smith
A college student returns home to Hoot Owl Holler, Virginia in search of her mother's family history, but uncovers a story of incest and curses instead.
12. The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb
Sharyn McCrumb uncovers the true story behind the Appalachian folk song in this novel of love and betrayal, set against the backdrop of the North Carolina mountains.
13. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
In Sevier County, Tennessee, Lester Ballard grows increasingly unhinged as he disconnects from society and escalates his criminal activities.
14. Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh
A western Pennsylvania town previously famous for its coal mines gets a second chance when a natural gas deposit is discovered beneath it.
15. Hawk's Nest by Hubert Skidmore
After contracting silicosis on the job in West Virginia, dying men find their concerns ignored by Union Carbide, the company that would later be responsible for a similar industrial disaster in Bhopal, India.
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