Book Review: ‘Appalachia in the Classroom: Teaching the Region’

Posted by | October 2, 2013


Please welcome guest book reviewer Robert F. Maslowski. Dr. Maslowski was educated at Holy Cross College, Massachusetts, and has a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh. He retired as a civilian archeologist with the Army Corps of Engineers and teaches Appalachian Studies at Marshall University South Charleston Campus. He is editor of the journal West Virginia Archeologist.


Appalachia in the Classroom, edited by Theresa L. Burriss and Patricia M. Gantt, consists of four parts and 14 chapters. This volume was designed as a teaching aid for Appalachian Studies courses and provides excellent examples for courses primarily in literature, but also in history, film, folklife and cultural studies. The content of the chapters are based largely on the background, teaching strategies and personal experience of the authors rather than a manual on how to teach specific courses and concepts.

Appalachia in the Classrom

Most chapters stress the development of the student’s critical thinking skills, the debunking of stereotypes and the diversity in Appalachia. The volume is successful in contrasting the classic Appalachian literature with more modern novels and publications that deal with the problems of contemporary Appalachia.

Part One: Creative Teaching of Appalachian History begins with an essay by Emily Satterwhite, Intro to Appalachian Studies: Navigating Myths of Appalachian Exceptionalism. This chapter demonstrates that Appalachia was not all poor, all rural, all white and all mountains. Appalachians participated in global and regional economies from the days of the early fur and ginseng trade to the present.

In chapter two Elizabeth Engelhardt uses the photographs, letters and diaries of Black Appalachian laundrywomen to emphasize the diversity in Appalachia and the invisibility of the Black population in Appalachian history. She points out that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Appalachia was depicted as the whitest part of America, free from immigration and racial politics in order to justify funding for schools, settlement homes, and clinics in the area.

In chapter three John Inscoe uses nine Hollywood films to teach Appalachian history. He uses these films to initiate discussions of race, religion and community in Appalachia.

Part Two: Appalachian Literature and Folktales begins with Erica Abrams Locklear’s use of the novel The World Made Straight in her Appalachian Literature class at the University of North Carolina at Ashville. The novel as well as other readings were chosen because they deal with the immediate area. A secondary plot in the novel includes the Shelton Laurel Massacre that occurred in adjacent Madison County during the Civil War. Locklear partnered with a high school English Class in Madison County and had her students discuss the novel with the high school students. Her class visited with the high school English class and a historic site associated with the massacre, then had a teleconference with Ron Rash, the author of The World Made Straight.

Jeff Mann’s essay on Teaching Literature to Students at Risk begins with his autobiographical experiences as a liberal, gay, Appalachian environmentalist in conservative Appalachia. His Appalachian Literature and Gay and Lesbian Literature classes at Virginia Tech stress that Appalachia has a valuable, unique and rich culture of its own. Because of his background, at risk students (Appalachians, gays and lesbians) feel safe and tell him stories they aren’t likely to share with other professors.

At Shepherd University, Linda Tate uses the writings as Lee Smith and other Appalachian writers in her Survey of American Literature course as well as a six-minute clip from the Signature: Contemporary Writers video series featuring Lee Smith. The course meets the requirements of an American Literature Survey but substitutes storytelling in place of the high literature approach, making it more appropriate for Appalachian students.

Tina Hanlon discusses introducing Appalachian Folktales into college courses and emphasizes that Appalachian oral tradition is one of the richest in America. She discusses the advantages of teaching with folktales: they are short, memorable and fun; they are found in every culture; and they unite children and adults. She also points out the pitfalls that can occur.

Part Three: The Novel in Appalachia begins with Patricia Gantt’s Teaching Modern Appalachia in Wilma Dykeman’s The Far Family, a multigenerational story of a large family with mountain roots. Originally from North Carolina, Gantt uses several of Dykeman’s novels in classes on folk narrative, foodways, material culture, teaching literature and young adult fiction at Utah State University.

Ricky Cox uses Fred Chappell’s short novel I Am One of You Forever as a subject for literary analysis and an alternative image of mid-twentieth-century Appalachia. In his discussion (is it a novel or collection of short stories) Cox covers the differences in impact of industrialization, differences in personal choices and opportunities, advantages of education, shifting social norms (family size) and other contemporary topics.

Felicia Mitchell introduces us to teaching ecofiction with Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer along with discussions of other authors and other Kingsolver publications.  Kingsolver is a biologist specializing in ecology and publishes fiction as well as ecological books. Prodigal Summer is used at both the high school and college level in biology, English, philosophy, environmental studies, sociology, women’s studies and religion. It emphasizes ‘deep’ ecology—environmental ethics concerned with the individual’s relationship with nature—as opposed to ‘shallow’ ecology, which focuses on environmental issues that effect the livelihood and health of people.

Part Four: Appalachian Poetry and Prose starts with R. Parks Lanier Jr.’s Appalachian Poetry: A Field Guide for Teachers. Lanier points out that Appalachian Poets include people who were born in Appalachia and live outside the area as well a people outside the area who have migrated to Appalachia. The three main concerns of Appalachian poetry are political, pastoral and personal. Lanier provides lists of Appalachian poets and summaries of their works.

Theresa Burriss introduces us to the works of Affrilachian writers Frank X Walker, Nikky Finney and Crystal Wilkerson. The traditions of Affrilachian writers are found in the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts movements of the 1960s. Walker’s collection Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York illustrates Affrilachian efforts to publicize the contributions, creativity and intellectual talents of African Americans. The poems relate the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition through the eyes of York, Clark’s slave.

Grace Toney Edwards introduces us to teaching the poetry and prose of Marilou Awiakta, a Cherokee/Appalachian author in Memphis, Tennessee. Awiakta’s writings are influenced by her Cherokee ancestry, her Celtic/Appalachian heritage, and her childhood memories of growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during the Manhattan Project. Her first book combining prose and poem was Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet, followed by a child’s story of historical fiction, Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery. Her 1993 publication Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother’s Wisdom combines poetry, myth, legend, fiction and personal essay.

The final chapter, Toward “Crystal-Tight Arrays”: Teaching the Evolving Art of Robert Morgan’s Poetry by Robert M. West chronicles the career of the poet and provides an in depth analysis of his evolving poetry. Morgan is from rural Western North Carolina and writes about the landscape and culture of rural Appalachia, but has also written poems about objects and scientific concepts. West’s highly technical analysis covers Morgan’s use of metaphors, chant royal, terza rima sonnets, Malayan pantoums and his unrhymed, enjambed, syllabic poems.

I found the volume interesting and very useful and would recommend it to anyone teaching Appalachian courses and students generally interested in Appalachian Studies.

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