Please welcome guest reviewer Crystal Good. Good is a writer poet, Affrilachian homecoming queen, TEDx Talker, tunk player, Mom of three, author of “Valley Girl”. She is currently entangled in Charleston, West Virginia. Please visit crystalgood.net and @cgoodwoman (Twitter).
Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long, Vandalia Press, 148pp. $16.99 (paperback) is described as “contemporary Appalachian” literature. It makes me think about how some people say all white people look alike or all men can change a tire; when we use “all” we create stereotypes and assumptions.
Not all contemporary Appalachian literature is defined by all Appalachians as contemporary; we are just as diverse in our opinions as we are in race, religion, sexual orientations and our tattoos.
Often with my lenses, especially in my own Appalachian otherness – I tend to be sensitive and ambitious about promoting a positive, welcoming and diverse Appalachia. I feel a sense of duty to always say something nice about Appalachia and Appalachian writers when I know outsiders will be listening.
So, maybe it was the timing of my reading Out of Peel Tree, a novel in stories about a contemporary Appalachian family that follows a grandmother, Essie, and her lineage from Peel Tree, West Virginia to a Texas town and all the places of life in between. The book opens with a connected characters family tree – Essie, Eva, Darlene, Billie, Hector, Corina, Joshua – each of whom own chapters in this book that the academy and critics love. I can see all the ingredients and why – it’s a good story, it has detailed imagery, an interesting creative-on-linear structure that at times bridges between poetry and Appalachian story telling, offering changing points of view that move forward and backward to develop the characters and plot.
Out of Peel Tree has been reviewed by 14 writers, who gush its praise, celebrating the nonlinear format as it seeks to connect place. So, maybe it’s just my personal taste, and that daily life is filled with such ambitious pursuits that I feel I don’t have the luxury of reading a story that doesn’t foster a change in me, or spark a new way of activism to create a vibrant West Virginia in Appalachia. In reading Out Of Peel Tree the ‘acclaimed Appalachian contemporary work of literature’ didn’t connect – not for or to me.
Perhaps it’s just the chemical water that is making me cranky, but it read like just another Appalachian book absent of the variety I seek to define contemporary Appalachian. I want my contemporary Appalachian to dig deeper and pull back the covers to expose deeper and unexplored truths of the region and its identity. That’s how I like my contemporary Appalachian fiction work, but I could be full of it—I like hot dogs burnt with chili and slaw too! It’s a preference.
Out of Peel Tree is classic Appalachia literature in that it offers your expected Appalachian doom, humor that is common in mountain folk, a desperate hope and familial love. It meets the criteria for any Appalachia story and it is a good story—so say the Guggenheim fellows, prizewinners and respected authors like Ann Pancake.
“Out of Peel Tree is a book of glorious surprises. The unexpected image in character, in turns of phrase and turns of plot, awakens readers not just to fresh perspectives, but even forms of consciousness. Vivid, sonorous, and wise” – Ann Pancake.
I mean, how do I say it didn’t work for me when Ann Pancake likes it? How do I say I need my literature defined as “Appalachian contemporary” to suspend me like a tree house over the New River Gorge? I need it to make me feel like a rhythm in a Hybrid Soul concert.
Perhaps Peel Tree is like an album that I need to listen to over and over again to really appreciate. Maybe I just didn’t like thinking about Essie (the grandmother) getting old (or me either for that matter). Or perhaps I just don’t like the great divide in how we define contemporary in Appalachia.
I don’t want to tell you that I was unattached to the book. I can’t imagine the author Laura Long reading this. I’m looking at her sweet face in the back of the cover now and I don’t want to say anything that feels unfriendly. This is where my Appalachia identity meets its self in the values of being polite while trying to tell the truth.
I guess it’s all in how you say a thing, and I don’t know how else to say it, so if I haven’t said it by now, I’ll just say it the best way I can:
“Out of Peel Tree is a novel in stories that is not my cup of tea but Out of Peel Tree as poetry is sweet tea!” – Crystal Good
I enjoyed the vibrant bursts of poetry, arranging time in a way that had me shifting my thoughts into a faraway yet close place. The vibrant language’s sensory details gave the book breath.
“Old homes stubbornly dug into steep mountainsides”
“…she becomes a song he can walk in and out of. When he walks out – even to leave her for a moment in bed – he feels cold, a star outside the window. “
“How long would he catch her if she needed catching?”
The familiarity of dialect and places was comforting. I did not feel lost in the book— often alone, but not lost. I knew where I was inside the book – even in Texas.
I found myself on more than one page discovering that wanting to leave is part of being West-by-god-Virginian. That even our state song is about that longing. There was a gentle humor that I enjoyed in these discoveries of home and in the Childhoods section Before Bliss Minimum – Joshua chapter where a new West Virginia is in fact suggested. I laughed at this suggested fact: “West Virginia, Main industries 1. Coal 2. Odd Jobs”
Somebody’s heart needs blessed in my review, I guess it’s mine and with all that I’ve said I think it’s best to stop and leave you with my favorite line from Out Of Peel Tree:
“Bury me bare foot and I’ll sleep easy. If my ghost is a wanderer, she’ll feel the earth and know she is in West Virginia.”