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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.