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River of Earth

Kentucky/Appalachian coal mine poverty is a great American story of resilience, survival, devotion and pride. It is largely forgotten today and shoved on the back burner behind progress. Those hard days are remembered only by some of the families in the same hollers still living out the repeating drama of generations. That is why this book is so important. It takes place in the early days of the great depression when the barebones poverty was at its worse and things hadn’t really changed much since the civil war. No cars, no running water, no phones, no electric lights, no radios, no doctors and a real struggle to just get enough food on the table. What kept people going? Family. “River of Earth” by James Still is narrated by a small boy telling three years in the story of events in the life of his family. His mom wants the settled life of the rented farm where they can raise chickens and vegetables and have a sense of place. His dad is a coal miner who moves the family from coal camp to coal camp on the hope of some real money but the mines keep cutting back laying off miners. The characters are amazing: Uncle Jolly, Grandma, cousins Harl and Tibb and sister Euely and brother Fotch. James Still was born into this and I suspect much of this book is his own story. It is vivid and real and is one of the forgotten gems of American Literature. Still published the book in 1940, just about the same time as Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” which got all the great reviews from the critics. With its simple sentences and mountain dialect, “River of Earth” sort of got overlooked.

But taken together, the two books represent the story of demoralizing poverty in the 1930’s. If you have read “Grapes of Wrath,” you owe it to yourself to read “River of Earth.”

“River of Earth” by James Still, Viking Press, New York, 1940...still in print from University of Kentucky Press, available on Amazon.

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