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Blog post by Linda Blake, University Librarian Emerita, WVRHC

I continue to enjoy histories related to areas where I grew up, the Appalachians, West Virginian specifically.  In this blog post I describe three novels set here.  All the books are available in the West Virginia University Libraries as well as in many West Virginia public and college libraries.

The first book, Mud and Money, delivers a multi-generational family saga set during the gas and oil well boom in Gilmer County. The second and third books, Clay’s Quilt and The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, are firmly about masculinity. The characters are males in their twenties and the novels are about their coping in Appalachia.  Strong women characters are not absent from these two books, but the stories really revolve around men.

Mud and Money by Mary H. Ellyson, 1973

Mud and Money centers around the oil and gas boom in Gilmer County, West Virginia, before, during, and after the WWI years.  Ellyson writes about the impact of the oil and gas industry on the lives of the people.  She details descriptions of the functioning of the wells and drilling and provides an historical record of the industry’s early days. This passage in the first pages of the book, gives the reader a portent of the impact of the oil and gas industry on farming communities.

Bed clothes were sunning in the yard, while downy little chicks peeped contentedly in the sun in the wake of the proud mother. When the deafening roar filled the little universe, it was changed for ever [sic] more. Immediately everybody stopped work and listened, fear chilling their hearts, for always sounds that are unfamiliar have brought great fear to the human race.

Central West Virginians will particularly appreciate the descriptions of the hardships, family life, struggles, and culture of early 20th century farm life as well as the vivid descriptions of the beauty and peace in the mountains.  Through the story of the Mills family and others in the small community of Tanner, the novel personalizes the impact of industrial development. 

While many characters are stereotypical in Mud and Money, such as the self-sacrificing mother, the wise old granny, the plodding father, the characters are also likable, despicable, and human.  The reader will find herself cheering them on, except for the despicable fellow.  The plot lines will keep you reading as you follow the struggles of the Mills family and their neighbors through generations. 

The early oil and gas industry in West Virginia is well documented in the WVRHC through books and archival collections.  To search the archives as well as for books, photographs, and printed ephemera, visit the WVRHC web page.

Clay’s Quilt by Silas House, 2002

Clay’s Quilt, the first of three companion novels by Silas House, are all set in rural Kentucky and include some of the same characters.  The other two books are A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo

Clay is Clay Sizemore, a coal miner.  The book demonstrates the quilt of his life made up of the squares of his relationships with family and friends. At the root of the story is the impact of his mother being killed when he was four years old and how that tragedy reverberates through time. Other central characters in the book include Aunt Easter who raised Clay; the wild Evangeline, his friend since childhood; Alma, the troubled fiddle player; and Cake, another long-time friend. All of these contribute to the uniquely Appalachian story of growing up in coal country. 

One of Silas House’s best talents is scene description, and although he sets a mood with his lovingly crafted descriptions of nature and the mountains,

The top of the mountain was lit with a silver glow, and the clouds above the moon were streaks of white, liquid light. He considered the mountain and felt like climbing it.  He hadn’t been up there at night in ages.  He heard it calling to him, telling him that if he would go up those old paths, he might see something that would answer one of his many questions, but he turned away…

I particularly identified with this lively church scene:

God was loose in the church house, and the Holy Ghost ran rampant among the people, sizzling through the air and hitting the women until they were forced to shake with wild abandon, succumbing to the spirit, throwing their heads back and speaking in unknown tongues, dancing out into the pews and rushing round and round the church, swaying like waterless swimmers in front of the alter, screaming loudly and taking off to run up and down the aisle.

Give House’s books a try for vivid descriptions of our mountains and for a good story with readily identifiable Appalachian characters.

The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, 1983

Breece D’J Pancake was just a fabulous writer. His stories are also steeped in maleness and coal country and offer an unquestionable and impactful literary style which continues to be read and studied since Pancake’s death at 26 years old in 1979.  The West Virginia and Regional History Center holds the papers of Breece Pancake.

Pancake vividly uses strong metaphors and analogies to describe the West Virginia of those caught in despair.  For example, the search for trilobites in the first story symbolizes the unfruitful search through layers for answer to the Colly’s problems, and Prince Albert, who is both royalty and an image on a tobacco can is trapped just the same as coal miners underground.  He excels at setting a tone with each word brilliantly chosen. Here he describes a fall morning before a fox hunt.

The passing of an autumn night left no mark on the patchwork blacktop of the secondary road that led to Parkins. A gray ooze of light began to crest the eastern hills above the hollow and sift a blue haze through the black bowels of linking oak branches.  A small wind shivered, and sycamore leaves chattered across the pavement but were stopped by the fighting-green orchard grass on the berm.

While “Trilobites” is the most anthologized story, another one resonated the most with me.  “The Honored Dead” is about the conflict in men who continue to be at war even after leaving service. The narrator has opted out of going to Vietnam, but the story is mostly about his friend who died there and the guilt and distress of taking his place in some ways.  This survivor’s guilt affected a whole generation. In addition, there is the narrator’s father who still suffers from his WWII experiences and his grandfather who fought in the Mine Wars, which to West Virginians was just as impactful as any declared national conflict.

While these stories are intellectually illuminating, they are also deeply dark.  Most jolting to me is the raw edge Pancake gives them using unseemly acts of violence such as hunting and killing animals, rape, and imagined murder.

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the tenth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

What women were expected to do, how to do it, and why they should do it is spelled out word for word in Freda de Knight’s cookbook. I felt like I was studying a women’s manual for proper household management, subscribing to a cooking tips blog, and learning a history lesson all at once.

A Date with a Dish is packed with “women’s advice and tips.” Written for women by a woman, I felt an intimacy created by mutual understanding of strictly female responsibilities at the time. Here’s a few of her strong suggestions for women:

Excerpt reads, "To please the eye means to please the palate. Dress your table as you would yourself. A dash of parsley, paprika or spice is to a dish what powder and lipstick are to you."
Five well-dressed African Americans sit around a fancy dining table having a meal.

Freda’s recommendations jumped out at me for different reasons. I resonated with some and went pffffft at others. I was not expecting a cookbook to instruct me on color schemes, silverware placement, calorie counting, or how to raise children.

Some of the most interesting tips from Freda: 

  • “If your room is dark, make your table bright; add your sunshine”
  • “Create a picture when you set a table… give your table personality”
  • “And if you want to keep your weight down along with your doctor’s advice, eat regularly, wisely, and well. Eat sparingly of starches, sugars and fats.”

When I read about the correct method for candle placement, I had to take a break and close the book. I thought, why does this matter? Is it getting ridiculous?

It did matter to Freda and the women who purchased the book. I realized that cookbooks share values and lifestyles. As ridiculous it sounds to a college student in 2021, Freda believed these tips would uplift and refine her readers’ household.

My favorite bit of advice from Freda:

“Don’t save the best for company, continually be your own guest.”

Resources:

Black Southern Belle: 10 Favorite Vintage Images in the Kitchen

Blog post by Christina White, undergraduate researcher at WVU

This is the ninth post in White’s series on race, justice, and social change through cookbooksfeaturing the following books from the Ebersole collection: Mammy Pleasant’s Cookbook, A Date with a Dish, A Good Heart and a Light Hand, and The Jemima Code.

How ridiculous and insulting! My happiness does not depend on feeding my future husband good, “manly” food!

Calm down, Christina. This was written 80 years ago…

There were some elements of Freda’s book, A Date with a Dish, that disgruntled me, even though the cookbook is overwhelmingly supportive of Black women and their liberties.

Entries like this took a minute of reflection to come to terms with:

Excerpt reads, "June Bride Menu

What is June without a bride? And what is a bride without the groom? Of course, once the ceremony is over, how to keep your husband happy is the important question.

Orange blossoms and lilies, white satin and lace, parties and honeymoon, these things can't last forever. There has to be a practical side, such as taking care of the home, planning good substantial meals, and building a future home and generation.

It isn't smart to say, "I just don't know how." There are no excuses for not trying. When it comes to a home and kitchen, one should know. You knew the answers in order to get married; you must know the answers to stay happily married.

So, try "Dating Our Dishes" for a date that lasts from the orange blossoms to the golden anniversary stage."

In no attempt to justify this philosophy, I engaged in a practice of empathy building after reading sections that labeled women as dependent. My college friends and I would all benefit from this sort of mental gymnastics. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to read about keeping your husband happy by cooking great meals, but how did this reality shape women’s status? How does it still influence parts of the world and our region of Appalachia? Answering these questions help us understand the context and roots of modern sexism.

With that in mind, there is an entire section dedicated to men’s recipes:

Excerpt reads, "For Men Only

If there is anything men dislike, it's dainty sandwiches and fussy menus at a man's part.

Here are a few menus that are sure to dazzle the gang and get that extra kiss or diamond bracelet you are working on.

Hamburgers on Buns
Onion and Pepper Saute
Corn-on-the-Cob, buttered
Mustard Sauce
Dill Pickles
Bowl of Lettuce
A Plate of Assorted Vegetables
Tomato Slices, Cucumbers, Green Onions
Beer"

Freda playfully mentions the reward for a manly meal: a diamond bracelet or kiss. In one minute, Freda is a champion of Black representation. The next, she echoes traditional gender roles that hurt my feminist heart. Freda was a powerful female icon, the editor of Ebony magazine, and at the same time, telling readers to avoid making “dainty” sandwiches for their husbands.

I had to remind myself that her steps forward are not erased by values I don’t agree with. It’s possible and important to appreciate her work and bravery in other areas, as she broke ground in terms of Black culinary representation. If you open a page of a book like this and immediately feel attacked, maybe see what else it has to offer. Absorb its message as a whole.

Resources:

Dainty sandwiches

Hamburgers

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