Please welcome guest book reviewer Tricia Fulks. Fulks is a freelance digital journalist and adjunct professor located in North Central West Virginia. She previously worked as an associate producer on “Hollow: An Interactive Documentary” and as a newspaper editor in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Fulks currently resides in Bridgeport, W.Va., where she continues to pursue personal and professional storytelling projects.
Sarah Beth Childers’ book of essays “Shake Terribly the Earth: Stories from an Appalachian Family” is something that anyone – even those living outside the mountainous walls of West Virginia – can relate to. The thematic threads that weave themselves from chapter to chapter are ones that are universally understood. From the Rocky Mountains to the beaches of the Gulf and anywhere abroad, anyone who picks up Childers’ book can understand stories of family, faith and fellowship.
But the stories that Childers, a Huntington, W.Va. native, tells strike closer to home for me.
As a native West Virginian myself, the Appalachia the author describes from her childhood was familiar to me. The casseroles at family gatherings, the reliance on one’s faith to get through difficult times and the places she frequented during her time in Southern West Virginia painted a picture of the place I’ve had a turbulent relationship with throughout my life.
The most poignant theme from Childers’ book, for me, was that of family. Upon opening “Shake Terribly the Earth,” you come face to face with a diagram of Childers’ family tree. During the first few essays, I found myself revisiting the family tree often, reminding myself of the connections among the large clan – another characteristic I found I had in common with the young author. But as I flipped through the essays, I got to know the various family members. The way Childers wrote, I felt as if I had become a part of the pack, sitting amongst her and her siblings learning of PaPa Ralph’s time as a train engineer in Southern West Virginia, hearing one of Grandpa Elwood’s grand stories or living through one of Granny’s outbursts. Childers puts her readers there, in the moment, only to shake themselves from it once the book has closed.
In Childers’ heartbreaking “Dead Grandmother Essay,” she writes about the ups and downs of Granny, Dot Taylor. Childers recalls the times she and her family would visit her grandmother – years after Granny left work as a surgical nurse, unfit to truly care for herself, leaving Marcy, Childers’ mother, to take care of household items. Entrance into Granny’s home depended upon her mood that day.
If Granny was happy, she’d knock back from inside, imitating the rhythm of our knocking. If she needed something, she’d hurry through her locks, throw open the door, and smile at my mother, declaring, “Blessed be the tied that binds!” If Granny was angry – or if my mom was sick and had sent my dad alone – she wouldn’t open the door.
In Childers’ last two essays, she writes about her Uncle Mark, her father’s youngest brother. In “The Tricia Has Crashed,” Childers writes of Mark’s last days on earth after a secret battle with cirrhosis of the liver.
But Mark had been too ill for three Christmases to drive those nine hours home. Too ill in body and mind with something he’d hidden, for more than a decade, perhaps, until Mark’s doctor told Elwood and Emma about their son’s corroded liver. For three years, Mark hadn’t let anyone visit him. “If you drive up here,” he’d told us, “I’m bolting my door.” He’d suffered in private, leaving nothing for his family to do but sit with him while he died.
In the following and the book’s final essay, “The Kite String,” Childers is able to remember a happier side of her uncle. The author writes about Uncle Mark gifting her and her siblings with kites throughout the years and recalls the times that an adult Mark would fly the colorful object through the air himself.
His kite glided above the silence that lurked behind his apartment door, the empty bedsheets he’d face again that night. Looking around, he saw couples with children, the white car that would carry him back to his apartment, alone. Looking up, he saw pink nylon and sky.
Perhaps it was a favorite pastime of his, perhaps it was an escape from his everyday life, but the image of Mark letting a kite soar through the air – juxtaposed to the gritty image of him dying in a hospital bed just one chapter earlier –lets the reader feel as much a part of Childers’ family as any author I’ve read. I feel like Childers’ vivid imagery and recollection of events allowed me to connect with her. I felt heartache after she lost a loved one, happiness when she drew on the good times with grandparents and siblings and sadness after her first true love duped her.
But as much as family is a primary theme in Childers’ book, faith and fellowship likewise play a central role in detailing her Appalachian rearing.
The way Childers writes about her faith, you would suspect her Pentecostal upbringing was just another character in the book. The connection she has to her religion and the lessons this author gleans from it come through in essays like “Garbage-Bag Charity,” “At His Feet as Dead,” “Give ‘Em Jesus” and others.
In “At His Feet as Dead,” Childers describes her spiritual baptisms. I felt that the honesty in Childers’ writing allows you, the reader, to put yourself in her shoes. We’ve all been in situations where we feel as if we’ve betrayed someone, and in this instance, the author feels as though she’s betrayed her Lord.
It bothers me that I lied for so long, so often my lies became unconscious. I could fake my prayers without feeling any guilt. It bothers me especially now that I haven’t been to church in ten years, beyond the prayer group in my parents’ living room. It would be all the easier to deny my Pentecostal roots, since my commitment was rooted in a lie. And if I give up on the tongues, might everything else fall away?
Childers gives readers an insight into who she is as a person, with spirituality shaping her since she was a young child.
In her essay “Ghost Siblings,” Childers writes about growing up and honoring the memory of her sibling lost in the womb, Christopher Michael. Just 18 months old when her mother miscarried her unborn sibling, Childers remembers even then clinging to her faith to get through.
My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and the daily absence of adult conversation gave her time for prayers and dreams. She taught me to make a prayer list: the U.S. president and our church pastor at the top, then parents, siblings, grandparents, great-aunts, regular aunts and uncles, cousins, my dog and pet snail, school friends, teachers, and classmates and teachers I hadn’t forgiven. I penciled “Christopher Michael” into my list of siblings.
The pureness and vividness in this memory, though written years later, is what makes Childers a great writer. No matter what story she is telling, it is authentic.
And that is my largest takeaway from Childers’ book – the authenticity in her writing and her stories; her genuine telling of her family members, those closest to her, and their best and worst qualities; and, of course, the honest illustration of her home, Appalachia.