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At Home in the Heart of AppalachiaReview - At Home in the Heart of Appalachia
by John O'Brien
Knopf, 2001
Review by Marysusan Noll
Oct 19th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

John O'Brien's book At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, succeeds at the emotional evocation of life in rural West Virginia but, sadly fails at trying to disrupt the prevalent stereotypes of the region. Being myself from West Virginia, there are certainly elements of this book which I found myself relating to, even welcoming as old friends. However, many of the episodes of conflict and the Outsider vs. Appalachian mentality which O'Brien gives such detail to describing, ring strangely hollow.

When I first picked up the book, I repeatedly found myself needing to lay it aside. Some of the images and feelings which he describes were simply too familiar and nostalgic to be comfortable. I do not imply this to be negative, to the contrary, O'Brien appears to be at his best when describing the brilliant majesty of the Appalachian landscapes, while at the same time elaborating on his own strange desires to remain there and escape it at the same time. This is an attitude which I have seen innumerable times during my youth in West Virginia, as well as during my relative exile in New York. O'Brien conveys that eternal lure that coming home has for all West Virginians, and perhaps all one-time residents of rural areas with a tragic loveliness.

I must admit that this was a difficult book for me to read. Not because the language was circuitous or unclear, quite the contrary, the images and emotions laid open in this rather over-long essay gave what was at times an unwelcomely clean window into the author's intentions. His descriptions of his relationship with his family, and particularly his estranged father are highly charged and breathe the greatest life into his story. His book could have been purely fleshed out with these familial relationships and not suffered, simply shifted theme and focus.

The first half of the book is a nicely done introduction into both the author's history and that of the West Virginia he knew. Many of his perceptions in this first section of the book ring quite true. The idea that no-one really wants to claim being "Appalachian" and that most West Virginians knew about Appalachia and Appalachians as an abstract concept but neither thought that they were in that strange category or knew anyone else who was. The idea of the "Missionary Mentality" of the rest of the nation toward this relatively impoverished area is aptly addressed, and this idea becomes the central theme of the rest of the book. It is also at this point that his writing become somewhat sticky and he falls in for the same stereotypes which he had derided in the first chapters of the book.

The second half of the book seems to have included a major conflict element simply to have conflict included in the book. The main conflict revolves around a group of intellectualized outsiders wanting to come into a small community and change it, seemingly for the "better". The community sees these people as arrogant outsiders who want to destroy their way of life and turn their town into a strange kind of "generic Appalachian experience". There is disdain, suspicion and even hatred exchanged between both factions. I won't reveal too many of the details of this other than to say, each chapter becomes a tirade regarding outsiders wanting to become insiders while trying at the same time to sublimate, exploit and preserve the "indigenous culture". Unfortunately, I never really seemed to know where O'Brien stood on these matters, even while he seemed to condemn the intentions of these outsiders, he defended them individually, and as he was the central character of the narrative, if not the conflict, I found this somewhat troublesome. These chapters are crucial for the development of O'Brien's story, however they seem to drag on with little aim at times, and perhaps might have been aided by some judicious reduction. There is also a rather distracting conceit of repeating the phrase "the Heart of Appalachia" in almost every chapter, which seems to be a heavy handed attempt to grab the reader and say "Look! See! I am drawing the elements of this together, see how they all connect?" I found myself groaning slightly after meeting the phrase for the fourth time. It made the book appear to have been collected from a series of essays on Appalachia, rather than as a unit originally intending to be a cohesive whole.

Overall, I like O'Brien's book. It is an apt reflection of a lifestyle I had known, and in taking us with him on a journey through the psyche of West Virginia he has succeeded, and I am grateful. However, he might have let us out a few stops earlier up the turnpike.

© 2001 Marysusan Noll

Marysusan Noll lives on Long Island, NY.


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