524 words about 120 counties: Notes from Jesse Donaldson’s book tour for On Homesickness


Jesse Donaldson was born in Kentucky, educated in Texas, and now lives in Oregon. His book On Homesickness was published by WVU Press in September.

You could fit all I know about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity into a thimble and yet that’s what comes to mind when I reflect on my tour to promote On Homesickness.

These are the space-and-time “facts” of the tour: 28 days. 5400 miles. 120 counties.

In many ways these facts tell the story. It was an epic road trip through Kentucky (roughly the equivalent of driving from New York to Los Angeles and back). But that doesn’t tell the full story.

You see, Kentuckians see space-and-time differently than most. For us time is counted in generations rather than hours and distance is measured in stone’s throws rather than miles.

For example, at my event in Magoffin County, a man claimed he didn’t have deep roots in the region because his family had only been there ninety years. And at a bookstore in Princeton a woman told me she wasn’t really from there; she was from Eddyville (note here that it doesn’t take but fifteen minutes to drive between the two).

In many ways, my whirlwind tour did a disservice to what makes Kentucky unique. It is a state that values contemplation. A place where people don’t consider sitting down and watching the world pass by an idle act. A land where stories unravel rather than follow a direct path. When you ask a Kentuckian about themselves, the yarn is often just getting to the good part half-an-hour later.

My 120-county tour was the opposite of contemplative. For example, this was the itinerary for October 26:

  • 10 AM Meet a book club at the Bracken County Library
  • 12 PM Meet a musician and fellow writer in Metcalfe County
  • 2 PM Teach a class at Lindsey Wilson College
  • 4 PM Read in Adair County
  • 7 PM Read on the porch at Penn’s Store in Boyle/Casey County*

*depending on which side of the porch you’re standing on

And yet in that day alone, I met with twenty engaged readers at a county library, shared my work with a fellow artist who picked two songs about home, taught a Jo Ann Beard essay to whip-smart undergraduates, shared a podium with some of those same students, and ended the night at a general store run by the same family since 1850. At the last event, I showed up unannounced and met Dawn Osborn, the sixth-generation proprietress, as she fed the dogs and cats white bread. Dawn and I talked for almost an hour about the store, writing, music, and her returning to Gravel Switch following the death of her twin sister (at one point she had been working as an international trader for a Chicago-based company but life had called her home).

There are time-and-space boundaries that define Kentucky. It officially became a state in 1792. Its borders are defined by rivers – the Mississippi, Ohio, and Big Sandy – and the occasional dotted line. But what Kentucky holds is infinite. An unending catalogue of stories that are tragic, hopeful, complicated, and sometimes downright funny – stories that are just waiting for someone to stop by and say, “Tell a little me about yourself.”

Reading to the descendants of Samuel Amyx by his headstone in Egypt, Kentucky. Amyx gave the town its unique name and may have inspired the name for nearby Mummies, Kentucky.
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Penn’s Store. The dogs are lying on the Casey County side of the porch.
Showing my daughter Poe a bit of Wolfe County.
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One thought on “524 words about 120 counties: Notes from Jesse Donaldson’s book tour for On Homesickness

  1. Your travels feel a bit like the trips I took around West Virginia on the book tour for The Rebel in the Red Jeep, the biography of the late former US congressman, Ken Hechler. Mine covered eight months during which I drove to Wheeling, Shepherdstown, Marlinton, and points in between to speak to audiences ranging from four to seventy-four. I, too, met some fascinating people, but I regret I never spoke on a porch. Maybe in the spring. Cheers,

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