Please welcome guest author Michael Abraham, whose historical novel War, WV (Pocahontas Press, 262 pages) has just released. Abraham was born and educated in Southwest Virginia and is an inveterate wanderer of the Appalachian Mountains.
He has a degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech. In 2012, his third book, ‘Harmonic Highways,’ was nominated for the 15th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Award. In 2011 and 2012, he was a featured speaker at the Virginia Festival of the Book, the state’s most prestigious annual book event. Abraham lives with his wife, three dogs, and four motorcycles in Blacksburg, VA.
Two of WAR, WV’s main characters are visiting a graveyard in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia. Pug Graham leaves his cousin at the tombstone of her mother and he walks around the area —
Pug walked back past the van and down the residential street. An older woman watched him warily from her front window inside a house that badly needed to be painted. He waved but she never reciprocated; she never reacted at all.
He ambled towards the nearby railroad tracks where he saw a white-faced black cat ramble slowly across the ties. He walked the ties himself, reminding himself of his childhood days when it was a game to skip one or two ties as he and his boyhood friends played on the tracks. Rubbish was everywhere, both the detritus of railroad operations – ties, spikes, rail-bolts – and of the more prosaic type, mostly plastic grocery store bags flapping from spiky entanglements on the leaf-shorn brambles.
His mind flew into introspection, thinking about the older woman behind the window. She was clearly West Virginian pure. He didn’t know what he was any more. West Virginians can be among the largest-hearted, most generous and warmest on the planet, but in equal or greater measure suspicious, chary, and distrustful, especially of strangers.
Nobody ever comes to the hollows of West Virginia by accident. Everybody has a reason. Mostly they come home, because so many have left. Others come from curiosity, the burning desire to see and experience the poverty, inexorable crawl of natural reclamation, the deterioration of manmade structures and of the souls of the people themselves. Anybody else who came inevitably brought more misery: the land speculator, the coal baron, the gas driller.
West Virginia was image-addled, and he understood why.
The town of Matewan and the epicenter of the Hatfield and McCoy feud, our nation’s most notorious and infamous, was only fifty miles to the west. Television had a field-day with Buckwild, a show that feasted on the stereotypes of young, reckless West Virginians in a sensationalized derogatory manner. But the escapades in Buckwild paled in comparison with the tap-dancing outlaw Jessco White and the insane, coltish, self-defeating antics of his family, portrayed in the documentary, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. Jessco White’s town, Bandytown, was just east of Amherstdale, over a couple of mountains. Most quixotic of all were the snake handlers, notably at the Pentecostal Church of Christ the Lord at Jolo near Bradshaw, where parishioners and preachers often died from bites.
The only time he’d seen West Virginia on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers was for ecological abuses and coincident protests, mine disasters and the inevitable mournfulness and acrimony, weeping children, and sorrowful wives, corruption scandals, meth lab explosions, and abysmally high smoking, illiteracy, and obesity scores. Find any index of economic well-being and West Virginia was anchored near the bottom.
Pug knew every stereotype had some basis in reality, but was infuriated that outsider perceptions were fueled by such unflattering images. He grew tired of the eye-rolls and the constant deprecating jokes he heard when he announced the state of his birth. He often gave Welch as his hometown, it sounding more distinguished, less confrontational than War. No, as a West Virginian, he wasn’t like everybody else. And West Virginia wasn’t like any other state. And War wasn’t like any other city. Now as an adult, he didn’t care, and he relished the novelty.
As with the dichotomy of both warmth and suspicion, West Virginians were both proud and lowly. As residents of one of the nation’s poorest, most maligned, least understood states, habitually dominated by extractive resource exploitation and domination by outside interests, how could anybody feel better than dissatisfied and somehow dishonorable? West Virginia’s parent, Virginia, had produced eight presidents, more than any other state. West Virginia has produced a goose-egg, zero! Virginia boasted founding superheroes Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Monroe. Most Americans had no idea of any famous or noteworthy West Virginians. One of Pug’s friends in Martinsville could only name comedian Don Knotts, Andy Griffith’s bumbling sidekick, as a native son.
Yet the pride was omnipresent, as was the solidarity, even though maintenance of it was often by the exiled. The psychic compass of most native West Virginians swung violently backwards, and the longing view was from the rear-view mirror. The state looked better from behind, fleeing away to better jobs and opportunities elsewhere than through the windshield, where the harsh realities emerged in clearer visions. West Virginia had endured the largest non-disaster related diaspora of any state, and many exiles speak longingly of “home” better conceptually than through reality.
Pug had heard the word “solastalgia,” a neologism coined by an Australian to describe a longing for a home that no longer exists, and knew it to be the way many Mountaineers feel when they return to the coal camps of their youth that now exist only in decayed ruins, if at all. Many mountains ceased to exist too, having literally been blown to dusty oblivions. Homesickness among those who left is endemic.