“An autobiography that begins with one’s birth begins too late, in the middle of the story, sometimes at the end.” So begins Addie, the autobiography of acclaimed West Virginia writer Mary Lee Settle.
The National Book Award winner chose to tell her own story through the voice of her larger-than-life grandmother, Addie Lee Tompkins.
Settle also wrote a series of five obsessively researched historical novels set in her ancestral home of Cedar Grove, WV. Known collectively as The Beulah Quintet, the novels trace the town’s history over 400 years, from Cromwell’s England all the way to the late 20th century.
“When I encountered Addie, my first thought was that someone had spun out in beautiful prose the answers to all my questions about home,” says producer Catherine Moore of Beauty Mountain Studio. “Cedar Grove is pretty special in that a great writer devoted the majority of her creative powers to telling its story.”
A native of Charleston and currently a Fayette County resident living at the head of the Upper Kanawha Valley, Moore is daily steeped in the landscape and culture that gave rise to Addie. With major funding from the WV Humanities Council and the sponsorship of Pocahontas Communications Cooperative, the producer has just spent a year talking to the women who live in Cedar Grove today about their memories and experiences.
Moore is currently in the process of editing and mixing her interviews into Cedar Grove, the working title of an hour-long radio documentary that explores Mary Lee Settle’s ancestral homeland as presented in Addie, and as it is today. “The documentary weaves through time, layering the voices of generations of women who have called Cedar Grove home, including those from the distant past, like Addie, and those like 99-year-old Katherine Atwater, who passed away this June,” explains Moore.
“We hear them tell their stories, each with a nuanced perspective of the land and its past. The geography and history of Cedar Grove is recounted in their words. Vivid scenes from Addie, read aloud by a voice actor; short segments of Settle’s interviews from 1944-1991; ambient field recordings from the Kanawha Valley; and an original score play underneath and alongside the women’s memories and descriptions of home. The resulting mix gives us access to a compelling narrative of feminine power, struggle, and identity in an Appalachian context.”
Moore’s approach is no gauzy stroll down memory lane. She’s clear-eyed about the real life issues that bedevil her interviewees. Modern-day Cedar Grove struggles with depopulation, addiction, and drug-related crime.
“Like so many other industry-based communities, Cedar Grove has sacrificed to varying degrees its human and environmental health,” said Moore in a recent interview with After Coal. “One can recite the litany–and here I’m speaking not just of Cedar Grove but of the Kanawha Valley as a whole. The lives and health of hundreds of enslaved people were sacrificed to the salt works. At least 700 men, mostly African American migrant laborers, died of silicosis as they dug a tunnel through Gauley Mountain for a hydroelectric project. Black lung has claimed the lives of countless miners and is on the rise in West Virginia. Drug addiction, one could argue, traces back to economic despair and lack of hope for the future made more potent by an industry in decline.
“The chemical industry has put the whole valley at risk for environmental disaster and large-scale human tragedy (in school our teachers led drills to prepare for a deadly chemical leak). Valley fills on mountaintop removal sites have buried streams. A huge coal slurry impoundment sitting above the town of Montgomery holds 2.2 billion gallons of toxic waste.
“And the combination of oil from drilling, chemical waste, coal waste, other industrial waste, and sewage brought the Kanawha to near lifelessness in the 1950s–just about the time all these industries began to wind down. Thank goodness, the Kanawha has cleaned up a lot since then, but it’s still not “healthy” on its own terms–it’s an industrial waterway, a means to move minerals.
The goal of the Cedar Grove documentary, explains Moore, is to “re-center marginalized narratives of women and African Americans in Appalachia; explore the history of the Kanawha Valley; and create a greater awareness of Mary Lee Settle’s literary work.
“The audience who needs her most is right here in Appalachia. Her historical fiction in The Beulah Quintet has the potential to help us understand how our story extends backwards in time, while filling out the richness and detail of that story; to make the region’s social and historical dynamics come alive in characters and scenes; and, perhaps most saliently, to help us explain the present.
“In addition, Settle’s conflict in Addie mirrors a conflict that many West Virginians have felt at some point in their lives—that between loving this place and navigating its economic, social, and political realities. Addie gives a personal account of the tension between idealizing home and being realistic about the challenges it asks us to trouble through. Her work matters to us because her personal story in Addie, and the history put down in The Beulah Quintet, are our stories, told with unrivaled depth, care and attention.”
Now that she’s immersed herself among the people of Cedar Grove while working on her radio documentary, what does Catherine Moore think the future holds for the town?
“With no dominant industry currently (coal is still important, but the Cedar Grove that was wholly reliant on coal is no more), Cedar Grove is experiencing a unique time,” she told After Coal. “The loss of jobs and population has contributed to poverty and drug addiction, but not since the days before salt bubbled up from the ground downriver in Malden has this place had space to define itself on its own terms. I think it is still coming into that space, which is not a wholly comfortable one. But it’s one that’s full of potential.
“For the first time in its history, someone who is not a descendent of an early captain of industry lives in the old Cedar Grove mansion, built by enslaved peoples for William Tompkins, Mary Lee Settle’s great grandfather the salt baron. Now it is run as a rest home for the elderly by Shirley Stennet and Patty Thurmon, two documentary participants and the descendants of Polish coal miners in the Cedar Grove area. This seems significant to me, that a space which once sheltered one of the valley’s wealthiest capitalists is now occupied by caretakers who are bringing peace to the frail and elderly who remain.
“If the town’s story so far has been inextricably linked to the waves of industry passing through the land, well, what happens now that they are disappearing? What’s the next chapter? It’s no longer a wilderness, a hunting ground, a pioneer outpost. It’s not a plantation or a company town. So what is it now? How does it make sense of itself? This is the same identity crisis being experienced by so many small towns in Appalachia, and by thousands more across post-industrial America. Like never before, residents are called to look again at the places they love and ask—What happened here? And how will we ensure our community’s survival?
“Residents are feeling the tension between a deep love of home and the economic, social, and political realities it asks them to trouble through.”
In this sample clip from “Cedar Grove,” Mary Lee Settle talks about her work in archival interviews, backed up by the voices of the women who now live in the community she spent her life writing about.