James Still is a legend in Appalachian literature. Silas House and friends run a journal of Appalachian literature named Still in the author's honor. Many Appalachian Studies scholars consider Still to be the first Appalachian author.
I didn't know any of these things until about a month ago. I was excited (and maybe a little surprised) to discover a piece of Appalachian literature I hadn't yet explored and put Still's River of Earth on hold at the UVA library.
Once I got a hold of the book, it took a couple of days to get into the story. River of Earth is told from the perspective of a young boy whose family bounces between mining towns when his dad can find work there and farming rented land -- where his mother is happiest. A rotating cast of relatives and friends prey on the father's deep belief in hospitality whenever the family is able to scrape together a living.
Still struggles with the country life/town life dichotomy that plagues so many Appalachians. He also explores the ways in which mining is not a sustainable industry for the region. When a mine closes unexpectedly, so do schools, stores, and company housing. And he wrote this criticism in 1940.
Although the main character's reflections are written in "standard" English, the dialogue is an extremely well-done southern Appalachian dialect. The novel's title comes from a sermon delivered by your run-of-the-mill hillbilly preacher:
“I was borned in a ridge-pocket,” he said. “I never seed the sun-ball
withouten heisting my chin. My eyes were sot upon the hills from the
beginning. Till I come on the Word in this good Book, I used to think a
mountain was the standingest object in the sight o’ God. Hit says here
they go skipping and hopping like sheep, a-rising and a-falling. These
hills are jist dirt waves, washing through eternity. My brethren, they
hain’t a valley so low but what hit’ll rise agin. They hain’t a hill
standing so proud but hit’ll sink to the low ground o’sorrow. Oh, my
children, where are we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning,
begetting, and a-dying – the living and the dead riding the waters?
Where air it sweeping us?”
And in the midst of that dialect is a question that people have been asking since the beginning of questions. I think that Still makes a powerful statement about the ability of his characters to discuss God, environmental concerns, and economic plans in such a dialect. Hillbilly? Sure. Stupid? Hardly.
For the classroom library, I'd recommend this book for any student interested in identity exploration. I can also think of a couple of boys who were interested in farming that I think would really enjoy reading about the family's struggle between that life and a life based on cash that can be earned in coal mines. Happy reading!