‘Mountain Girls’ Celebrates the West Virginian Identity

Posted by | July 29, 2014

Stephanie KarasPlease welcome guest author Stephanie Kadel Taras. Taras has just published Mountain Girls. The book features the lifelong friendship of two girls from Elkins, WV, whose resilience, humor, and creativity shape unexpected lives. Inspired by stories from other West Virginia women, they learn what generations of Appalachians have long known—it’s up to you to make the life you want. Taras’ personal biography firm TimePieces Personal Biographies, LLC, gathers and preserves clients’ stories into heirloom books that record the passing of time.

 

The view as I drove toward Riverside High School, just south of Charleston, was a typical West Virginia mix of beauty and industry, with the mile-long DuPont chemical plant on a stretch of the Kanawha River framed by lush green hills. I had come to give a talk about my new book, Mountain Girls, at a public library that was located within the high school, just beyond the tiny town of Belle. My self-published book had come out a few months previously, and in May 2014, I left my current home in Michigan to return to my childhood home state of West Virginia for a brief book tour.

As I pulled into the parking lot of a modern white brick building, I was feeling a little deflated. My book talk the previous night in downtown Charleston had attracted only three attendees, and I worried that this daytime talk would be even less successful. But when I arrived at Riverside, the librarian said, “Well, at least we know you’ll have a good turn out for this one.”

Mountain Girls cover

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because two of the high school teachers are bringing their classes. Didn’t I tell you?”

This was news to me! I looked at the clock. They would arrive in about five minutes. And I hadn’t prepared a talk for teenagers.
But I knew this was an opportunity. After all, Mountain Girls is partially about two teenage girls—my best friend and I growing up in the small West Virginia town of Elkins. And it’s also a book about possibilities, about how you can grow up to love your Appalachian roots without letting those roots hold you back from your full potential. If I could figure out a way to reach these young people with my story, maybe I could even have a modest impact on somebody’s future.

Mountain Girls was not specifically written for a young audience, but it is a book for anyone who treasures their Appalachian identity. I doubted most of these young people—who now sat facing me, bored and skeptical, but not talking or asleep—had given much thought to their identity as West Virginians. But I knew something they didn’t yet know: wherever their lives took them, being West Virginian would eventually mean a lot to them.

It was my own longing for the mountains and curiosity about why West Virginia had such a hold on me that led me to write this book. I wasn’t born there, and I moved away at age sixteen, but even though I’ve lived in Michigan most of the past 25 years, I have kept going back to Elkins, wanting to understand more about where I grew up and what it means to be West Virginian.

As a professional writer and personal biographer, I had the idea to write a social history of my childhood home. I originally intended to write about other women, not myself. I planned to interview older women about their lives on mountain farms, about gardening and canning and cooking, about raising children and playing music and “living out” in mountain hollers—to capture a way of life and a body of knowledge that had pretty much disappeared in a single generation. I did some interviews, and I did a lot of reading about West Virginia history.

Then I started to write. And a different story began to tell itself. I found I kept writing about my own life and family and how my experiences in Elkins shaped the independent woman I became. I also wrote about my best friend, Lisa, whose family had lived in West Virginia for centuries before she moved away after college. I wrote scenes from our high school years and present-day stories about our work lives and love lives and trips back home to drive the mountain roads and eat beans and cornbread.

I still wrote about other women, too, about our mothers and our peers and women’s choices in the past and present. I also wrote about the Scots Irish settlers and the origins of old time music and the ecology of the Monongahela National Forest and the role of West Virginia in the Civil War.

The book took shape slowly over ten years, while my life and Lisa’s life continued to change even as we looked to our childhood home for help in making sense of who we had become. In the end, Mountain Girls emerged as a combination memoir and social history that introduces West Virginia to outsiders and taps into a deeply shared story for those who know the region best.

Did those teenagers care about any of this? Well, who can really say? But I told them about my life as a self-employed writer, and I read to them about being a good friend, and I tried to describe what West Virginia means to me now. I hoped to encourage a sense of pride and a belief that they could do whatever they want. They asked a few questions, and a teacher assured me afterward that the students had been unusually attentive. Well, at least none of them fell asleep.

WV map

Excerpt from Mountain Girls:

West By God Virginia.

I’ve been telling people in Michigan about my recent trips to West Virginia to reconnect with my hometown, my old friends, and new stories of old places.

“Hope you have a great trip to Virginia,” says a woman who has known me for years.

“How was Virginia?” asks another woman upon my return to Ann Arbor. We’re shopping at Zingerman’s Deli—Ann Arbor’s coolest and priciest fancy food store.

“I was in West Virginia,” I say, as I dip a piece of baguette in a tasting cup of extra virgin olive oil. I know that correcting people’s minor mistakes in conversation is awkward and unkind, but I do try to clarify “West Virginia” when they get it wrong. I can’t figure out if most people have never heard that one of the fifty states is called West Virginia, if they don’t see the need to distinguish between the two states, or if they just can’t believe that’s the place I mean.

If it sinks in that I’m talking about a different state from Virginia, and which state that is, their faces suddenly change like they’re thinking, “You grew up in that place of inbred hicks and barefoot children and black lung? How did you make it out of there?” Maybe, as we’re standing together buying aged balsamic vinegar and cocoa-dusted almonds, it’s easier for them to imagine me growing up in Richmond or Norfolk or Alexandria.

West Virginia writer John O’Brien describes having the same experiences during the years he and his wife lived outside of the state. He found that while people often didn’t know anything about West Virginia, or thought he was talking about western Virginia, they did know about Appalachia, and the images of poverty and hillbillies the term tends to conjure. He deemed such conversations an “odd confusion in the background of our lives.”

When I have tried to bring clarity to such confusion, some people simply wave off the distinction between West Virginia and Virginia. The West doesn’t seem to register at all, as if I just tried to distinguish between Roquefort and bleu cheese. I want to point out that West Virginia seceded from Virginia and really doesn’t have anything to do with that other state of urban riches, Atlantic coastline, and southern charm. But I don’t know if I should remind them of the Civil War, when West Virginia managed to become its own state, while never seeming to embrace its Yankee status … for example what about the fact that my junior high school was built on Robert E. Lee Avenue? Or that southern accents and sausage gravy flow freely among the folks of West Virginia?

History has revealed that the people of this region were by no means in agreement on the matter of separating, or even particularly opposed to southern priorities. After all, the new state’s constitution did not outlaw slavery or free the slaves living there. And when the war started, many young men left their homes in western Virginia to join with the Rebels. If they were lucky enough to return after the war, they found themselves living in a new state.

Consider Stonewall Jackson. When I was a teenager, I went to a weekend church camp every fall at Jackson’s Mill, a historic property near Weston, West Virginia, that belonged to the family of General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. A huge portrait of this famous soldier in his Confederate uniform hung over the fireplace in the dark meeting hall, looking down on us campers as we ate spaghetti at long wooden tables. West Virginians continue to honor him as their own, because he was born in Clarksburg and grew up at Jackson’s Mill. But Stonewall Jackson always considered himself a loyal Virginian. During the war, he begged to be transferred back to his home territory to roust the Unionists from what had become West Virginia.

Today, West Virginians celebrate Stonewall Jackson and other vestiges of southern heritage without any apparent identity crisis. It’s as if they dare outsiders to say they can’t be both loyalist and rebel. Why can’t they have southern charm and northern hospitality, southern grit and northern wit? Having it both ways means they don’t have to accept either way. They can simply be a unique people, somewhere between, not of, the north or the south. Wild and wonderful. Hip holy rollers. Refined rednecks. Living atop the Cultural Continental Divide.

When I was a child, I jealously defended my state from Yankees who called it southern. Long before I understood the social, historical, and political identities of the South, long before I knew much about the Civil War, I was a staunch defender of West Virginia to outsiders from farther north. I thought the weather would demonstrate the difference. “We aren’t southern,” I used to say. “It’s too cold. School is always being called off for snow days.” Perhaps I felt that paying the dues of harsh winters gave me the bragging rights of a northerner.

But I had no particular sense of a northern identity, either. I simply always wanted to be West Virginian. And I wanted others to see that West Virginians were not what those outsiders imagined. We didn’t all go barefoot and have coal mines in our backyards, as some kid at a camp in New York asked my sister. We ate fast food and listened to cool music and bought Chuck Taylors if we wanted them. As a teenager, I was awakening to what the rest of the world thought of my beloved state, but I wasn’t ready then to stand up for its unique culture. I wanted to prove we were just like everybody else.

A few years ago, I was watching television at home in Ann Arbor the day Martha Stewart was released from a prison in West Virginia. I noticed that every time the news media mentioned her prison stay, they always noted its location. Do you think they would have done that if the prison had been in New York? (Of course, even if the media had repeatedly said it was in New York, no New Yorker would have cared.) But I think it sounded to the reporters like extra punishment to send the queen of hand-made wreaths and elegant table settings to serve her time in unclean, backward West Virginia, where Martha was appalled to discover she couldn’t get a fresh lemon.

Today, I purposely tell people I’m from West Virginia because I like how it sounds. Although being a native-born Floridian is in itself unusual, there’s nothing much interesting about saying I’m from Florida or from Michigan. I like being from somewhere unexpected and unfamiliar. It’s the same mystique about West Virginia that other people disdain that makes me proud—and therefore complicit in rendering West Virginia abnormal. Similarly, I want to use the state to hide from outsiders while simultaneously ensuring that West Virginia is acknowledged by them. No wonder everyone else is confused. . . .

I’m sitting in my home office when the phone rings. I can see on the caller ID that Lisa is calling. Even though I’m anxious for new clients to call, I’m relieved to see it’s just her.

I pick it up and say, “Hey.”

“Hey. Guess what? I got my passport in the mail today.”

“Excellent.”

Lisa is planning her first international trip, and it is her first-ever passport. I’m excited about her plans to see Europe with some friends. I’ve been twice to Europe, once as a child with my mother and once for a semester in college, so I’ve had a passport since I was eleven.

“So I opened the passport,” she says, “and guess what they have as my state of birth?”

“Oh no.”

“Virginia!”

We laugh—a familiar, despairing laugh. We’ve heard this joke before.

5 Responses

  • Excellent blog, Stephanie! So much of it resonated with me. As a woman from West Virginia, oftentimes I’ve also often had to make the geographic distinction.

  • Kim says:

    You and Marie are excellent ambassadors for West Virginia. Keep spreading the word!

  • Rob Escow says:

    Steph,
    Great job on the book and glad you are touching more and more lives telling the tale of your life and book. Although you moved to Michigan, and I moved away, we consider you to be a Michigander! Best to you and Jeff and all the A2 folk. Hope the garden is lush this Summer! Big hugs and much love, Rob…

  • Marilyn says:

    While I’ve lived most of my 61 years in Ohio I have always considered myself to be a West Virginian. I don’t just go to WV. to visit family, I go back home to visit them. Genealogy research shows my family in Pendleton and Greenbrier counties in the 1700’s. My WV. roots are very deep. My great aunt lives in Beverly, WV. with her son and daughter-in-law. On Dec.2nd she will be 111 years old. She and her son are living the goal many of us dream of, retiring “back home”.

  • How amazing to have a 111-year-old aunt in Beverly, Marilyn! I hope you, too, will one day find your way home to stay. Thanks for reading and commenting on my story!

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