First look: An excerpt from Keegan Lester’s book Perfect Dirt

Keegan Lester’s new book Perfect Dirt: And Other Things I’ve Gotten Wrong has just been released and ships now when ordered from West Virginia University Press. We’re pleased to share this excerpt, called “A Snapshot.” You can hear Keegan read from the book here.

In the city I grew up in, there was no glimpse of West Virginia. There was no place to eat the food that my father was raised on. There was no one who spoke like my grandma or grandpa or believed in magic or the improbable. There were no trains whistling at night or woods that whispered their secrets.

My father would wake me up at seven in the morning Saturdays in the fall from the time I was eight or so and we’d call all the bars in our city and neighboring cities to see if anyone had the West Virginia University football game on through a satellite feed. Then he’d take me to a bar and we’d eat chicken wings at nine in the morning. While all the surfers were out surfing and the people who brunched weren’t even awake yet, and while skaters dreamed their ethereal dreams, we watched our giants run into other giants through a grainy television screen and my dad would get choked up on beer and tell me a little bit about being a boy in Morgantown.

My father is my father but once he was only Joseph. Then he was Joe, then Fatty, then he grew into a redwood of a man and was renamed Bigs. Then he grew into all these other people and one day he turned thirty-two and a month and some change, and he became my father and now he’s my father and Big Joe because I know his secrets.

My mother was born Kathleen and grew up Kathy in South Florida. Stunningly beautiful her whole life. She was a class president and a prom queen and once someone took a picture of her while she was jogging and they put it on billboards. Then she became a nurse and took care of babies who were born too small during the crack epidemic, babies who were too sick to live on and, despite everything dying does to the body, she’d tell these babies you must continue on, you must live on, you’re meant to live on and she would hold these babies in her reed basket arms, telling them she loved them, long after everyone else had gone to sleep. You are loved and you are loved and you are loved. And sometimes she named the babies. And some nights I imagine her sitting up in bed looking out at the night sky recalling names of these babies she named until running out of stars in the Western Hemisphere. And one day she drove across America until she arrived on a beach shouldering the Pacific. And a few years later she became Mom.

And then I was one of the babies born too small.

And so I was raised by these people in a place that was like neither of the places they came from, and I never took to the language of the place where I was raised.

Sometimes I like to imagine my father moving from West Virginia to Colorado to California. I imagine everyone telling him forget. And I imagine him closing his eyes, trying to forget. I imagine him taking his clothes off, putting new clothes on, and then opening his eyes as someone whispers to him Forget everything you’ve ever known if you want to be one of us.Read More »

The labor history of Appalachia’s essential workers: Previewing John Hennen’s new book

The union of hospital workers usually referred to as the 1199 sits at the intersection of three of the most important topics in US history: organized labor, health care, and civil rights. John Hennen’s A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers, coming November 1 from West Virginia University Press, explores the union’s history in Appalachia, a region that is generally associated with extractive industries but has seen health care grow as a share of the overall economy. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 briefly focused attention on the history of labor-management conflict in the state. A cross-section of mainstream and progressive media drew a crooked line to the teachers’ rebellion from earlier battles between coal operators and miners, especially the Mine Wars of 1913–1921. This attention to a significant part of the state’s working-class history was welcome and a long time coming. Some academic and independent historians have studied and written that history for decades, but the contributions of regular working people are still too often airbrushed out of the standard narratives of American history. As I write these words, the world is grappling with how to survive the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic. The curious phrase “essential workers,” although it has been around for a while, has now become part of our daily vocabulary. It reflects an awareness, finally, that the workers who feed us, protect us, clean up after us, drive us around, deliver our stuff, teach our children, and care for the old, the sick, and the injured are not just assistant people. They are “essential.” Will our appreciation for essential workers inspire a structural realignment in America’s distribution of wealth? Or is it just a transitory thing, which soon enough will fade back into the old reality, that the more essential the work, the less the pay?

This book tells the story of how some essential workers in Appalachia built a healthcare workers’ union, usually referred to as “1199,” between 1969 and 1989. That union had a history dating back to the early 1930s, where the original New York City Local 1199 was founded by a Russian immigrant with radical ideas. His name was Leon Davis. His radicalism was defined in part because of his political affiliation. In the early 1930s, when he began organizing pharmacists and drugstore workers, he was a Communist, active in the Trade Union Unity League. But he was also radical in the greater sense, in that he believed that marginalized workers in the hospital industry—Blacks, Puerto Ricans, poor Whites, women—were human beings who should be recognized, respected, and paid a decent wage. They were pharmacists, nurses, nurse assistants, janitors, housekeepers, laundry workers, maintenance workers, cooks, and dishwashers. Davis believed these workers were entitled to a dignified and comfortable life as much as anyone else. That was a radical notion. No other unions in the 1950s, when 1199 began organizing hospital workers, wanted much to do with them.

Read More »

The Harlan Renaissance: An Interview with William H. Turner

West Virginia University Press is thrilled to be publishing William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns, which has just been released and ships now when ordered from our site. Turner, who was also a contributor to our 2019 collection Appalachian Reckoning, considers this book the summation of his life’s work studying African American communities in Appalachia. Here he talks to Vesto PR’s Caitlin Solano for our blog. You can hear him read from his new book here.

Alex Haley, the author of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, gave you advice and encouragement to write this book back in 1990. How did it all come together over the 30 years until now?

WHT: When I met Alex, he was already familiar with me from a book I’d coedited with Ed Cabbell back in 1985 called Blacks in Appalachia. Alex told me that book would only appeal to sociologists or folklorists and that he didn’t think that it spoke to real Blacks in Appalachia, or what he called, “your grandmama on the porch.” He went on to say, “Bill, I hope you never write any more bullshit like this. Write something that your mother and her people in your hometown can read and appreciate.”

In the ensuing years between Blacks in Appalachia and The Harlan Renaissance, I grew a lot, I met a lot more people, I listened a lot more, and I tried to write this book with a different voice. The result is a book that’s somewhat memory, somewhat history, somewhat sociology, but I hope that as a package it’s a voice that tells a down-to-earth review of my journey but also reflects a group’s biography—the journey of lots of folks who grew up like I did in eastern Kentucky.Read More »

“We’ve got all the exciting elements of a compelling documentary”: An interview with James Maples, author of Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge

James Maples, author of Rock Climbing in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge: An Oral History of Community, Resources, and Tourism (available now) emailed with Kentucky-based filmmaker and photographer Mike Wilkinson about the challenges of oral history, working with local communities, and the dream of making a documentary about the Red.

You can read the recently updated climbing economic impact study on the Red, or watch a presentation of the report on YouTube.

What’s your connection to the Red River Gorge? Are you a climber?

I am not a climber, but I am an outdoor recreation enthusiast. I grew up in the woods of rural East Tennessee. I spent my childhood in scouting and eventually earned my Eagle Scout rank. I understand the connection to outdoor areas. I feel it every day and I’m glad to have my life’s work centered around it.

Joining the faculty at Eastern Kentucky University back in 2014 put me in the right place to work with the climbing community in the Red. EKU is a strong supporter of regional research, so it was a great fit. Visiting the Red and the surrounding region reminds me somewhat of where I grew up, and it has become a surrogate hometown for me in recent years.Read More »

Edward Watts discusses a newly discovered novel of nineteenth-century West Virginia

Based mostly on his own experiences, Theophile Maher’s local color novel Cannel Coal Oil Days challenges many popular ideas about antebellum Appalachia, bringing it more fully into the broader story of the United States. Written in 1887, discovered in 2018, and published now for the first time, it offers a narrative of life between 1859 and 1861 in what was then western Virginia as it became West Virginia. The novel’s protagonist, a mining engineer, works closely with a Black family to organize the local abolitionist mountain folk into a Union militia to aid in secession from Virginia.

We talked with Edward Watts, editor of WVU Press’s edition of the novel, which will be published on August 1.

Tell me about how you discovered the manuscript, and about your personal connection to it.

The 390-page manuscript for my great-great-grandfather’s novel Cannel Coal Oil Days, handwritten on a series of steno pads in 1887, was given to my mother by members of another branch of the Maher family. I found it among her papers after her death in 2018. I read it and decided to pursue editing and publishing it, not only as a means of preserving family history, but also because, as a literary historian, I saw its value in the traditions of realism, Appalachian fiction, abolitionist and Civil War narrative, and mining history. My family still owns the Michigan land that Theophile bought, and stay in his daughter’s cottage there.

When people hear “coal” and “West Virginia,” they immediately have certain ideas.  But what’s cannel coal?

Cannel coal is a soft malleable coal found throughout the Ohio River Valley. While its only current use is hand-molded sculpture in arts and crafts, in the middle of the nineteenth century its distilled oil was developed as a replacement for whale oil in lighting American homes. Over-fishing had made whale oil scarce and Victorian-era homes had been fitted with oil burning lamps and chemical and mining engineers such as Theophile set to work on producing safe, clean, inexpensive, and non-odorous oil for that market. Read More »

“Every book is a process and its own story”: An interview with Gillian Berchowitz

Gillian Berchowitz was director at Ohio University Press until 2018, and among other accolades she is recipient of the Cratis D. Williams/James S. Brown Service Award from the Appalachian Studies Association. She talked with Derek Krissoff, director at West Virginia University Press, for the blog.

Tell me about the biggest change you’ve seen in your time as a publisher, and maybe about something that hasn’t changed as much as people predicted it would.

Very broadly, I think the biggest change has been the digitization of every aspect of publishing, but that’s almost meaningless now.

In some ways the publishing process has been democratized and in other ways a great deal of expertise has been lost, and writers find it harder to make a living, which is very undemocratic. Self publishing is no longer stigmatized and that’s all to the good, but the skills that editors, typesetters, text and cover designers, and professional publicists bring to the act of publishing are less—or no better—understood now, it seems, than ever before. The invisibility of what publishers bring to the finished book is elusive for many authors who are starting out and I wish that there were better ways of connecting authors with the many independent publishers that are out there. In the last 30 years or so, university presses, in addition to their scholarly publishing programs, do the work of independent publishers, but many writers don’t know that.Read More »

First look: Neema Avashia’s memoir of growing up Asian American in Appalachia

In response to the renewed urgency of amplifying Asian American voices after last week’s Atlanta tragedy, we’re proud to share an excerpt from Neema Avashia’s book Another Appalachia: Coming up Queer and Indian in a Mountain Place, forthcoming from West Virginia University Press. Please check back for a formal publication announcement and ordering information.

I grew up in West Virginia with one foot in the boom, and one foot in the bust. I was born in a valley with thriving industry and all its associated complications, and graduated from high school in that same valley, now saddled with dying industry and all its complications. The place I call home is the small, unincorporated community of Cross Lanes: population 9,995. A town that doesn’t even warrant a dot on the state map—a string of gas stations, fast food restaurants, and residential developments built in the 1950s and 1960s to house the employees at the burgeoning chemical plants in Nitro and South Charleston. These workers—the children and grandchildren of coal miners—found their way into a more middle-class existence than their ancestors because of the steady pay, union protections, and guaranteed health benefits that work at the plant provided. And my Indian immigrant parents, who arrived from the state of Gujarat to the United States in the early 1970s, capitalized on that same employment to create their own foothold in the middle class. Along with about 100 other Indian families who moved to the Chemical Valley around the same time, we created an Indolachian existence for ourselves, encountered West Virginians who both embraced us and rejected us, and simultaneously both embraced and rejected elements of the culture we found ourselves immersed in.Read More »

Celebrating Black History Month in Appalachia: An early look at William Turner’s Harlan Renaissance

William H. Turner’s The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns is coming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2021, and will be announced officially in our next catalog. In this preview from the manuscript, Turner—a sociologist and recipient of the lifetime of service award from the Appalachian Studies Association—reflects on Black life in his hometown of Lynch, Kentucky.

Lynch was a model company town, among the first planned communities in the mountains of the South. The engineers estimated that there was enough coal to stay in business for a century, so they, by design, constructed the business, mining, recreational, health care, and residential structures of the most durable materials. All municipal services were first-rate. By mid-September 1917, the year of my father’s birth, 300 cars of materials had been unloaded and the building of the town began. A mine was opened, and rail tracks were extended from Benham, which was owned by International Harvester, another of J. P. Morgan’s companies. The new town was named after Thomas Lynch, the president of US Steel, who had passed on three years earlier.

Within the blink of an industrial eye, between 1917 and 1920, the population of Lynch increased dramatically, to 7,200. The first nonnative residents in Lynch were Italian and Hungarian stonemasons brought directly from Ellis Island by the company; these robust souls were the first line of laborers who carved out what became a colossal coal camp, carved into the wilderness. By 1940, Harlan County’s population (75,275) was exceeded in Kentucky only by the counties of Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).

Lynch and towns like Harlan, Hazard, Jenkins, and Wheelwright (in eastern Kentucky); Big Stone Gap, Grundy, and Stonega (in southwest Virginia); and Gary, Keystone, and Beckley (in southern West Virginia) were as racially and ethnically diverse—each group living in their neighborhoods and with traditions openly displayed—and as booming and blooming as New York City. Harlan County was to Kentucky Black coal mining families in the 1920s through the 1940s what Harlem was to Black New Yorkers in the same period. It was the cultural and social epicenter of the region for Blacks; and, as “the blackest town for mountains around,” Lynch was equivalent to 125th Street in Harlem—the school was our Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Pool Room was our Apollo Theater.Read More »

Read West Virginia’s spring books today with NetGalley and Edelweiss

With wintry days of reading on the horizon, West Virginia University Press is pleased to make it easy to get complimentary access to two of our highly anticipated spring books. Use your free NetGalley account to read Shaun Slifer’s So Much to Be Angry About: Appalachian Movement Press and Radical DIY Publishing and Jim Lewis’s novel Ghosts of New York. Like what you’ve read? Then consider reviewing it on a site like Goodreads—authors will appreciate the positive word-of-mouth, and so will we.

And if you’re a bookseller, librarian, or reviewer with access to the Edelweiss platform, you can also read Larry D. Thacker’s Working It Off in Labor County and Charles B. Keeney’s The Road to Blair Mountain. We add general-interest titles to Edelweiss on a regular basis, so check back for forthcoming books by Renée K. Nicholson, Geoff Hilsabeck, and more. And happy reading!