I first compiled this list in July of 2017 in order to address the frequent number of requests I receive for a list of books that might help readers better understand Appalachia. This is meant to be a short list of essential reading for those who want to understand the region's major problems and various approaches to solving them. This revision is necessary because of the publishing of two exceptional new books and because, as always, as our understandings of our region evolve, so to do our interactions with the literature.
The original version included both fiction and nonfiction, and here, I have separated the two genres. As before, I continue to include fiction because there are some amazing writers from the region whose novels and short stories tell the stories of Appalachia and the people who live here in ways nonfiction can't. This version of the list has a bolstered fiction section.
This is, of course, not an all-encompassing list, even with the ten new books I have added, and even if you read all the books on the list, you will still have barely scratched the surface of Appalachian history and culture. I have tried to offer here a balanced list that reveals the complexities of Appalachia and challenges efforts to stereotype the region or paint it with too broad a brush.
Some of these books are more scholarly than others, and some are enjoyable reads while others are not. Many of the books on the list were meant for academic rather than general audiences, but I believe there is much to be learned here for people of any educational background or profession. I tell my students every semester that I do not care whether or not they like the books I assign. If we all chose to read only those things that we enjoy, we would rarely be challenged or gain new knowledge. I believe each of these books, in its own way, is worth the investment of your time, even if they are not wonderful reads, and especially if the subject matter makes you angry or emotional.
I would like to offer a special bit of gratitude to those who have emailed me in since the list was originally published to offer suggestions, additions, and critiques. At last count, over 150 people have chimed in to help me shape the list moving forward. I am certain that the future will hold a 3.0 version of this list, so consider this a work in progress. Also, know that it is impossible to include every book I would like, and know that there are always books I have either forgotten or never read that are also worthy of inclusion here.
Now, the books, in almost no particular order:
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte. This is, in many ways, a response to Hillbilly Elegy. Catte offers incredibly important social and historical context for those seeking to better-understand Appalachia. She rejects Appalachian stereotypes by focusing on literature, art, and political action that is organic to Appalachia, carried our BY Appalachian people, not FOR them. This book offers a much-needed native perspective for the ongoing national conversation about Appalachia.
Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia, by Steven Stoll. Another brand-new book, Stoll's work traces the history of Appalachia back to the region's earliest European settlers. Focusing largely on the evolution of Appalachia's homesteads, Stoll notes that even the earliest white settlers in the region were confounded by absentee ownership. I first became aware of Stoll's work in graduate school when I read another of his works for a Rural and Agricultural History seminar. He brings his important perspective as an historian of agriculture to the study of Appalachia. This book offers an important and largely missing piece of historical context to the literature.
Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance. If you have read the essay about my mother, then you know that I have been critical of this book. I believe Vance focuses too much on an oversimplified and stereotypical view of the region's culture while assigning very little blame to those who have systematically exploited Appalachia for generations leaving poverty, heartache, and fatalism in their path. Nonetheless, this book is mandatory reading. Even if you disagree with some of Vance's conclusions, as I do, this book has done more than any other in two generations to draw Appalachia into the national spotlight and start important conversations about the plight of the region's people.
Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry Caudill. This classic work has become somewhat rare these days and generally only those who work in the field of Appalachian Studies continue to read it. Caudill was an attorney and state legislator from eastern Kentucky who was brave enough to speak out against coal companies and other powerful interests that he understood, quite correctly, to be hurting his region. Later in life, he went a bit off the rails, but that's irrelevant. Night Come to the Cumberlands was the book credited with first bringing the plight of Appalachia to national audiences. JFK read it. LBJ read it. You should read it, too.
Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945, by Ron Eller. Eller's offers an important look at the history of development in Appalachia, framing the region's story as a sort of forebear of what the nation as a whole was becoming. If you are interested in industrial development in the region, this is the book for you. Eller, who retired in recent years after a career in the History Department at the University of Kentucky, is one of the deans of Appalachian history. His voice and his work are informed by years spent studying and teaching about the region. This is a scholarly book, but don't let that dissuade you.
Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington. If you do not know about the Signs-Following Christians of Appalachia, who handle poisonous serpents as genuine expressions of their faith, you should. Covington spent a great deal of time with the Signs-Followers, eventually taking up the serpents himself before leaving the tradition behind. This book details his experiences. Some have criticized him for his methods, but this first-person account is a compelling look at an often misunderstood group of Christians in Appalachia. It is important in part because it is an example of the non-monolithic nature of Appalachian culture and religion.
Creating the Land of the Sky, by Richard Starnes. Often, tourism is but an afterthought in analyses of Appalachian economy. Because of the tremendous success of tourism around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, people often disassociate the area with Appalachia. Dr. Starnes is Dean of Arts & Sciences at my alma mater (Western Carolina University) and he was one of my professors in graduate school. Starnes argues that WNC benefitted from a sort of inverse of the white trash stereotype. Because local color writers and others romanticized the region, tourists began visiting, setting WNC on a different path than many of the other parts of Appalachia.
The Road to Poverty, by Billings and Blee. A local study, this book offers an in-depth look at Clay County, Kentucky, a place that remains one of the poorest in the United States. Billings and Blee are sociologists and take a social-sciences-based approach. At its core, this book reveals the ways political leaders tend to treat the symptoms of poverty rather than address the deep systemic issues that are the root causes. The book tends to be expensive. This is one you might be able to find at a college or university library, though, particularly if you are in Appalachia.
They Say in Harlan County, by Alessandro Portelli. Oral histories are becoming increasingly popular and important. This book is a collection of oral histories that allow over 100 Harlan County residents to tell their stories in their own words. If you have watched the FX series Justified, then you will have at least a passing familiarity with Harlan. The town (and county of the same name) was the site of two violent strikes, first in the 1930s and again in the 1970s. If you are looking to read Appalachian stories from the people themselves, this is a wonderful resource.
Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon, by Anthony Harkins. This is a cultural history, a field of historical inquiry that is often unfamiliar to the non-historian and which often vexes those historians who do not specialize in the field. In this is a fascinating book, Harkins traces the history of the hillbilly through popular culture and argues that the imagine of the hillbilly played an important role in constructing the image of whiteness in the twentieth century. I had to read this book in graduate school, and I hated it, but I assign it myself now, because it's an important read.
Bloodletting in Appalachia, by Howard Lee. This book, first published in 1969, is in many ways as much a primary source as a secondary source. Lee served as Attorney General of West Virginia in the 1920s and 1930s, so he experienced firsthand much of what he writes about. Lee describes, in quite candid terms, the ethically-bankrupt politics that emerged in WV when coal operators were able to buy politicians and justice during the first half of the twentieth century. If you want to understand the mine wars of that era, and the corrupt politics that still exist as a result, this book is a great place to start.
Matewan Before the Massacre, by Rebecca Bailey. Particularly if you have watched the film Matewan, this is a great book. It offers the historical context, stretching back to the end of the Civil War, to describe the events depicted in the film. The book helps contextualize the movie and helps readers to understand the complicated events that led to the massacre. Those interested in local history will enjoy this book as will those seeking to have a more full and nuanced version of the history than is offered by the film.
The Travels of William Bartram, by, well, William Bartram. Between 1773 and 1778, naturalist William Bartram travelled what would become North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, and Florida. He documented his travels both in written form and by drawing, recording information about the plants, animals, and people he encountered along the way. This is THE book for those seeking to learn what Southern Appalachia was like before widespread European occupation.
Our Southern Highlanders, by Horace Kephart. I have a love-hate relationship with Kephart. On the one hand, his advocacy for what would become the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the primary reasons so many of the important landscapes dear to me are preserved forever. On the other hand, he tended to be condescending toward the locals he encountered when he arrived in Western North Carolina to find his "back of beyond." His work is an important primary source for those seeking to know what the people Southern Appalachia were like at the turn of the twentieth century. I dismissed Kephart as a condescending and elitist asshole for most of my life. However, in graduate school, I began working with the Kephart Collection at Western Carolina University's Mountain Heritage Center. My opinions of him have since become a bit more nuanced.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. I can never decide if this book is best placed on this list or on my poverty reading list. Really, it belongs both places. This is mandatory reading for anyone seeking to understand class in the United States, and it is particularly useful to those seeking a more nuanced understanding of class in Appalachia.
Cherokee Americans: The Eastern Band of Cherokees in the Twentieth Century, by John Finger. I made an embarrassing and egregious omission from the original version of this list by not including a book about the Cherokee. This is particularly terrible given that I live two miles from the Qualla Boundary and studied the language for two years as an undergrad. Appalachia has always been a tri-racial society, despite stereotypes that indicate that Appalachia is all white. This book traces the history of the group of Cherokees who remained behind in Western North Carolina when the tribe was forcibly removed to Oklahoma via the Trail of Tears. For those who are interested, Finger has another book titled The Eastern Band of Cherokees, 1819-1900, which traces the Eastern Band from the time of removal until the time covered by Cherokee Americans.
A note about fiction: There are hundreds of wonderful works of fiction set in Appalachia, and I strongly recommend that people dive deeply into the literature. What I hope to offer here is a broad summary of some of the most popular works of fiction by Appalachian authors.
The Weight of this World, and Where All Light Tends to Go, both by David Joy. Joy is one of the most important writers in Appalachia right now. His first two novels are life-changing, and if you haven't read them, you need to. I am already excited to read his next novel when it comes out. As an introduction, read his piece in The Bitter Southerner. These novels are gritty. He doesn't hold anything back. They will reach inside your soul and shake you to your core. These books will change the way you see Appalachia, and they might even change you, if you'll let them. Joy does a better job than anyone else I've ever read of humanizing the poorest and most outcast members of Appalachian society. He writes about those who aren't even considered by their neighbors to be worthy of being part of civilized society. Don't declare yourself to be an advocate for everyone in the region until you can advocate for those who are like Joy's characters.
Serena, by Ron Rash. This is one of my favorite novels set in Appalachia. As literature, it is incredibly beautiful. It is poetic, even. Rash puts the same kind of effort into research that many historians do. In writing Serena, he spent hundreds of hours in the Special Collections at Western Carolina University's Hunter Library to be sure he had his finger on the pulse of Appalachia in the era in which the book is set. This is a beautiful indictment of the lumber barons and the consequences of extraction economies, and a timely look at the possibilities of preservation, wrapped around a compelling story, centering on one of the most wonderfully dark characters in modern literature. I am admittedly a huge fan of Rash's work, and I have every one of his books. A close second favorite is The World Made Straight.
A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash. This remains one of my favorite Appalachian novels. Cash does a laudable job weaving the religious, social, and economic contexts of Appalachia into a story that is both thrilling and moving. In the opening scene of the novel, a copperhead sinks its fangs into the arm of an elderly church member who took the snake up as a sign of her faith. The book builds momentum from there. It is a chilling reminder of how some are able to use religion for their own purposes, and it reveals much about the complicated nature of church in these mountains.
Storming Heaven, by Denise Giardina. A fictionalized account of the Battle of Blair Mountain, this book weaves a wonderful tale of coal, violence, unions, and company gun thugs. If you don't know about the Battle of Blair Mountain, where the US military took up arms against 10,000 miners fighting for the right to organize, you should. Start with this fictionalized account, then read Robert Shogan's nonfiction account, The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America's Largest Labor Uprising.
Clay's Quilt, by Silas House. This beautiful novel is a brilliant measure of the pulse of Appalachia. House has always had a knack for injecting the often-tumultuous realities of family life in Appalachia with humanity, revealing the rich love the grows in poor places.
My Old True Love, by Sheila Kay Adams. This novel reads much like an Appalachian ballad, which is appropriate because the main character is a ballad singer, as is Adams. The story offers a wonderful portrayal of the importance of ballads in Southern Appalachia and the beauty and complexity of Appalachian family life. If you can find it, be sure to listen to the song of the same title, as sung by the author.
The Ballad of Tom Dooley, by Sharyn McCrumb. Or, really, any of her novels. Like most Appalachian ballads, the infamous Ballad of Tom Dooley has a back-story. This novel is a fictionalized account of that back-story. However, despite the fact that this is a novel, McCrumb did a substantial amount of historical investigation while researching the book. It's a great read for those who love historical fiction. Also, be sure to check out McCrumb's wonderful guide to pronouncing "Appalachia."
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. This is another book that I can't believe I omitted from the first version of this list. I went to high school in the shadow of Cold Mountain, so I read the book as soon as it came out. For me, at first, it was just a novel set in a place I knew. It was only later in life when I realized what a great piece of literature it is. Funny how getting a degree in English literature can help you realize that Charles Frazier is quality and John Grisham is crap (but crap I still enjoy reading). I think the film is great, too, particularly the score. This novel does a fair job portraying the hard realities of the Civil War in Appalachia. You've probably read it, but if you haven't, you should. If the Civil War is of interest to you, check out my Civil War Reading List.
I am aware of a few books currently in progress (including my own) which I will add to this list as they become available. I am also looking for a good novel to represent what has become known as "Affrilachia," because African American voices have long been missing from the stereotypical story of the region. Until I find the right Affrilachian novel to include here, I would encourage you to check out Frank X Walker's poetry.
I also have a number of lovely novels from self-published authors that I will add in at some point in the future, and I have contemplated adding a separate section to highlight the region's poets (Ron Rash, Larry Thacker, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Wendell Berry, Fred Chappell, and Brent Martin, to name a few of my favorites). As I said, this list continues to be fluid. In the meantime, if you have read all the books on this list, you will know more than most about Appalachia.
If you are widely (or even narrowly) read in the region's literature, what do you think I left out that I should have included? What emerging authors or forgotten historians have I omitted, either on purpose or inadvertently? If you are just beginning your journey toward learning more about Appalachia, which of these books has been most helpful to you? Please do reach out via the Contact link and send me your thoughts.