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Kentucky by Heart: Sharing nonfiction titles celebrating Appalachian Eastern Kentucky

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Although I was raised in the northern part of Kentucky and have spent adulthood living in the central part of the state, I’ve developed a strong interest and appreciation of the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky.

Dad took our family on many trips through the mountainous area and I was amazed at the natural beauty of the landscape (though in the mid-sixties, there was often unsightly trash strewn along roadsides and creek banks, a subject for a separate article). Over the years, I’ve developed wonderful friendships with people from such places as Harlan, Prestonsburg, Leslie County, Ashland, Jackson, Whitesburg, Johnson County and many more.

I adore the strong sense of “place” I observe in the people from the region and hope to see the region begin to overcome some of its most serious problems, such as poverty, a lack of good jobs, drug abuse, and health-related issues. Having said that, I believe there is a wealth of strong minds and good-hearted souls in the region that can bring significant progress from within.

And to affect real change, one must get past the stereotypes and misinformation. For those interested, there have been a huge number of non-fiction books written about the area. Many are quite academic in nature; they might not be considered “summer on the beach” book fare, yet point to some strong, objective truths and worthy of perusing.

I’ve collected a fair number of titles and some short reviews (written by me) as a starting point for study. No attempt is made to make the following an exhaustive list, though bibliographies included in the books can spur one onto further resources. And, let me make a quick disclaimer that I have not read all of them, but would hope to in time.

I might also add that there are many great works of fiction about the region, or written by authors from there — a possible article to share those in the future).

Let’s take a look… I pulled them from my own bookshelves!

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The Life and Work of John C. Campbell

Author: Olive Dame Campbell; edited by Elizabeth McCutchen Williams

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky (2017)

The study of people living in Appalachia sometimes gets labeled as “complex;” and often the language, customs, and sophistication is a subject of national cynicism of the region, if not scorn. Missionary teacher John C. Campbell (1867-1919), funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, embarked upon a careful, objective study of the region, including eastern Kentucky.

Campbell, accompanied by his wife, Olive Dame Campbell, traveled throughout the southern Appalachian region of the United States starting in 1908. They painstakingly recorded stories and information about the people and their land. The result was the classic and widely used academic study, The Southern Highlander and His Homeland.

In the 720-paged The Life and Work of John Campbell, Elizabeth McCutchen Williams has edited “the first critical edition of Olive Dame Campbell’s comprehensive overview of her husband’s life and work—a project left unfinished at the time of Olive’s death…(drawing ) extensively on diary entries and personal letters to illuminate the significance and lasting impact of John C. Campbell’s contributions.”

Williams, an associate professor at Appalachian State University, previously authored Appalachian Travels: The Diary of Olive Dame Campbell.

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Appalachia in Regional Context

Place Matters

Edited by Dwight Billings and Ann E. Kingsolver

A deep connection to the land and culture of a region, commonly called “place,” is still important, even as a global orientation the same becomes more technologically available. Editors Dwight Billings and Ann Kingsolver make that point about Appalachian studies in their collection of essays, Appalachia in Regional Context: Place Matters, saying “the diverse ways in which place is invoked, the person who invokes it, and the reasons behind that invocation all matter greatly.”

Nationally known experts from diverse backgrounds add their thoughts to the conversation. Subjects touched on include foodways, gay life, gender issues, and art and music. The insightful poetry selections of bell hooks add enrichment to the overall perspective in this 264-page book.

Billings is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Kentucky and Ann Kingsolver is professor of anthropology and past director of the Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Program at the same university.

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Place of Hope, Place of Progress

An Illustrated History of Lees College 1883-1996

Author(s): Stephen Bowling, Cathy Branson, Richard Holl

Lees College, in Jackson, got its start as Jackson Academy in1883 “to instruct elementary and secondary-level students within the context of a sturdy, upright Christianity,” say authors Bowling, Branson and Holl in their history of the school, called Place of Hope, Place of Progress: An Illustrated History of Lees College 1883-1996. From that modest beginning, the educational institution in eastern Kentucky has withstood the test of time, overcoming many challenges, to continue as a viable source of preparation for life work, even as it has today become a branch of the Hazard Community College system. The highly detailed 149-page book includes scores of both black and white pictures and innumerable short profiles of some of the colleges most noted, including former Lees basketball player Owen Collins, who later became a respected educator.

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Here are more, without reviews added:

• Religion and Resistance in Appalachia, by Joseph D. Witt

• Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry Caudill

• The Caudills of the Cumberlands, by Terry Cummins

• Bloody Breathitt, by T.R.C. Hutton

• James Still: A Life, by Carol Boggess

• Ricky Skaggs: My Life in Music, by Ricky Skaggs (with Eddie Dean)

• Stinking Creek, by John Fetterman

• Dawn Comes to the Mountains, edited by Samuel Thomas, foreword by Bert T. Combs

• John Stephenson: Appalachian Humanist, by Thomas Ford and J. Randolph Osborne

• Growing Up Hard in Harlan County, by G.C. Jones

• Rural Life and Culture in the Upper Cumberland, edited by Michael Birdwell and Calvin Dickinson

• House Calls: Memoirs of Life with a Kentucky Doctor, by Alma Dolen Roberts

• Challenge and Change in Appalachia: The story of Hindman Settlement School, by Jess Stoddart

• Harlan County: The Turbulent Thirties, by William D. Forester

• Harlan County Goes to War, by William D.Forester

• Days of Anger, Days of Tears: The History of the Rowan County War, by Fred Brown, Jr. and Juanita Blair

• Crossing Trouble: 25 Years of the Appalachian Writers Workshop, edited by Leatha Kentrick and George Ella Lyon

• Mud Creek Medicine: The Life of Eula Hall and the Fight for Appalachia, by Kiran Bhatraju

• Dark Hills to Westward: The Saga of Jennie Wiley, by Harry Caudill

• Generations: An American Family, by John Egerton

• Down Cut Shin Creek: The Pack Horse Librarians of Kentucky (children’s book), by Kathi Appelt and Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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