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At Home in the Heart of Appalachia
by John O'Brien
ISBN 0385721390 / 9780385721394 / 0-385-72139-0
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John O'Brien's scrupulous, exactingly honest memoir opens in 1995 on the day of his father's funeral in Philadelphia, which he will not attend because "eighteen years of silence stand between us [and] my presence would only add to family stress." Instead, he chooses to visit his father's birthplace in Piedmont, West Virginia, and consider the roots of their estrangement in the region that indelibly shaped them both. In a subtle, ruminative text, the author interweaves his memories with a history of Appalachia that debunks many myths. (The Hatfield-McCoy "feud," for example, had more to do with dislocation caused by the coal and timber industries than any native blood lust.) Much of the book limns O'Brien's first few years in Franklin, a small town two hours south of Piedmont where he and his family settled in 1984. A bitter conflict involving the Woodlands Institute, an educational establishment that locals feared was trying to "take over" their school system, becomes a paradigm for O'Brien of the way affluent outsiders have always stereotyped Appalachia as a primitive backwater peopled by hillbillies, while the residents resisted attempts by strangers to "improve" their home ground with a stubborn fatalism about the possibility of (or need for) change. The author's own conflicts with his parents--who were skeptical when he went to college and horrified when he admitted to seeing a psychiatrist--reveal a provincialism and narrow-mindedness he does not deny are common in the region. At the same time, he affirms the joy of living close to nature and honors the "plainspoken, empathetic, and genuine" native character. Because his complex work doesn't trade in stock nostrums or easy sentimentality, the portrait that emerges of a people and a place rings deeply true. --Wendy Smith [via]