Education in Appalachia: The Crisis

This site is meant to be a resource for educators and researchers interested in learning more about the catalog of Appalachian Children’s Literature in addition to sources on education within the region. The researcher believes that it is important for educators to utilize regional literature as a means of building connections between the world one lives in and the opportunities for academic pursuits. ​

According to Hall’s study of the “Failure of State-Led Development Aid” in the region:
“Appalachia continues to lag behind in education and overall health. In central Appalachia, only 12 percent of adults have a college degree compared to 28 percent nationally… (88).  A 2011 report from the ARC described Appalachia’s outmigration as “among the worst in the nation” and expressed concern regarding the migration of Appalachia’s “prime age” workforce. From 2000 through 2009, 183 Appalachian counties, nearly 45 percent of the region, experienced net population loss (ARC 2011, p. 2). The ARC views this loss as a case of “brain drain,” where those who are most likely to generate economic activity leave the area in pursuit of better opportunities. Those who remain in the area, faced with smaller markets and shrinking labor demand, experience continued and worsening poverty.” (92)

These findings are unsettling. The fact that Appalachia continues to experience such a degree of out-migration, mostly as a result of education and opportunity, is astonishing.

Not surprisingly, the recent history of Appalachia is complex. From the 1950s to the present, Appalachia has experienced job loss, government intrusion, educational reform, and serious emigration. The ingrained poverty of Appalachia was further complicated by reform and outside land and resource ownership. All of these elements had an impact on the people, education, and livelihood of the region. By studying the history, scholars may get a glimpse at what practices have some potential to change the future.

The 1950s were a time of great exploitation in Appalachia. Coal mining was mechanized, which led to extensive job loss within the region (Eller 20). The welfare system expansion coincided with mechanization and the introduction of strip mining. The combination of these events led to extensive poverty and limited economic and industrial growth (33). By the 1960s the state of Appalachia had grown so “desolate” that politicians and journalists entered the region to assess and report on the reality of life for residents. The findings were varied but the image presented to the rest of America was one of extremely poor people and conditions. Government intervention was to follow (61). Programs like the War on Poverty, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Appalachian Regional Development Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act were all an outcome of journalists and politicians entering the region (72-89). As these programs succeeded in some areas and failed in others, the 1960s and 1970s saw an influx of non-government initiatives, grassroots movements, and community activism (109). This was most often in response to government failure on environmental policy (e.g. Mountaintop removal) and employment failures in the region. The 1977 Surface Mine Reclamation Act was cut back from its original aggressive version to a more modest version in order to be passed (196). Coal continued to see a rise and fall in profitability mostly in response to the oil industry. In the early 1980s, as coal became more necessary when oil production dropped off, Appalachia suffered the exploitative intrusion of mountaintop removal, which requires few employees but produces vast environmental impacts (197). Into the 1990s Appalachia saw economic improvements, but it still lagged behind the national standard (217). Tourism and second home development increased, yet environmental destruction in the form of mountaintop removal still continued (222). Educational programs improved, literacy rates increased, and dropout rates decreased. With these glimmers of progress, out-migration of young and educated Appalachians continues at a baffling rate (239). Eller puts it well when he says:

“Thus, in an ironic way, Appalachia at the turn of the twenty-first century was a microcosm of the contradictions confronting modern American life. The flood of suburban tourists seeking to renew their relationship with the natural world passed young people along the highway leaving the mountains in search of better lives in the cities from which the urban refugees had fled” (257-8).

The extensive issues following Appalachian education and the resulting out-migration lead an educator in some ways to be disheartened. Scholars’ studies of place-based education and the benefits of using regional literature offer a glimmer of hope to the issues plaguing Appalachia. The Encyclopedia of Appalachia states:

“Since the 1970s, so much good writing has emanated from southern and central Appalachia that the period is sometimes known as the Appalachian Renaissance. Contemporaneous with the rise of Appalachian studies as a discipline and sometimes motivated by the same desire to rectify negative attitudes toward the region, this literature presents Appalachia as a region of remarkable diversity” (1038).

Recent Appalachian literature, both for adults and children, must deal with the complex themes that have emerged in the region since WWII. Mountaintop removal, emigration, poverty, loss of land, substance abuse, lack of education, sexual identity, and broken families are all issues that have emerged or continued in the region since the 1950s and must find a voice in its literature.

Historically, educators in Appalachia have been admonished for their lack of cultural sensitivity or basic knowledge of the values and customs of the region. Today, there is little excuse for this practice. Educators are better equipped than ever before to understand the complexities of teaching in Appalachia and to alter their lessons or teaching style accordingly. Appalachian students will forever struggle with the rest of the world’s inaccurate preconceptions, the classroom should be a place for them to overcome stereotypes and push beyond expectations. Time should be spent analyzing and reforming the image of Appalachia through the study of past and present regional literature and place-based learning. Programming should encourage students to look at perceptions of Appalachia critically. Students should be shown the inherent value of their region, and, by extension, themselves. Hopefully, by building pride, more students will be willing to stay within the region to become innovators, investors, and educators. Appalachia may still fall behind other areas of the country when it comes to literacy and dropout rates, but there is hope. Any student may be encouraged and inspired by teachers, family, and friends. The region could benefit from the interaction of educators, families, representatives, and students. By utilizing open communication and collaboration, in addition to employing place-based learning techniques, the region’s schools and economies can experience growth and improvement. Appalachia has the potential to move beyond the stereotypes.

In conclusion, Waitt boldly asserts:
“Students, who frequently do not have a sense of their own culture except as it is conveyed by the media, would benefit greatly from discussions of the social and educational inequities that continue to marginalize Appalachia…If education is truly about presenting students with choices, then Appalachian students merit accurate accounts of their history, need tools to critique the erasure of their culture, and deserve to see themselves reflected in the stories they read.” (84)

Teachers across the region are witnessing the change in unengaged learners as a result of studying and valuing regional literature. Students are able to relate to the characters in regional literature, and as a result, find themselves rethinking what it means to be Appalachian. In order to reduce the rates of out-migration and “brain drain”, educators need to take these findings to heart. It is time to change what is broken.  

Education in Appalachia: The Complexities

First, it seems that many can acknowledge the frustrating and, at times, inadequate history of education in Appalachia. Source after source bemoans the lack of cultural awareness found in classrooms throughout the past and present. Second, educators are moving towards an understanding that each region, classroom, and student requires something different to encourage engagement. Third, educators can see the value of teaching students using familiar ideas. Utilizing place based learning and Appalachian literature, educators are equipped to inspire students to see their region in a way outside of the long held stereotypical images on the news and in the movies. Outmigration is not just an issue of the past. Young bright individuals from Appalachia still move away upon graduating. They seek opportunity far from home. Families still fear that success in education means losing their child to a city far away. If Appalachia has even a semblance of a chance of competing economically, it must find a way to encourage the innovative and valuable young people to stay.

​Education may just be the way. Utilizing regional literature as a means to change students’ views of home may help. Educating educators to understand and empathise with the cultural complexities of Appalachia should become a priority. Changing the rhetoric used when discussing continued education is necessary. The sources reviewed on this site are all pointing towards change. It will take all community members’ participation to enact the necessary changes in Appalachia. Policy makers, school officials, teachers, students, and families must all seek improvement together. And the implications of such action go beyond just benefiting the student. By creating informed and thoughtful students, society is propelled forward, not just economically, but culturally. Educators can be encouraged by the success of their students. Policy makers and school officials can be supported by an improved economy. Families will, hopefully, encourage education no longer fearing the loss of children to far off cities. By pouring energy and study into improving education in the region, it will benefit the entire community.

Hendrickson studies the current attitude towards education in Appalachia:
“The success of students in rural areas is vital to the success of the region, as these students will make up the community of the future. Resistant students in rural areas can be engaged in conversations and critical thinking about their resistance and the factors that prevent them from engaging with school. These students can then develop a voice for change, challenging the dichotomies of higher education and rural values. By voicing their concerns about inter-sections [sic] of school values, home values, and future opportunities, these students can become change agents for their communities. Ultimately, resistant students can be key to the evolution of rural communities.” (48)

Of course this is a proposal filled with hope. It will take much more than ideas to move Appalachia forward. 

Many questions remain:

  • Should students be encouraged to stay within the region?
  • What can teachers and other educators do to encourage students to build a regional identity?
  • Does there need to be more communication and collaboration between educators, parents, and students?
  • What would a beneficial relationship between families and educational institutions do to improve learning outcomes in Appalachia?
  • Does studying Appalachian literature make a statistical difference when it comes to engaging students in the region?
  • What is the best way to bring regional literature into the classroom?
  • What moves can communities make to enhance postgraduate opportunities for young people?
  • What other methods can be used to encourage reinvestment in Appalachia?

Education in Appalachia: Resources

This is in no way an exhaustive list of literature on the topic of education in Appalachia. It should act as a springboard for individuals interested in further research, discussion, or writing about the crisis of education in the region. 

Addington, James R. 2011. “Education and Development in Rural Appalachia: An Environmental Education Perspective.” Ph.D. diss., Ohio University. 188 pp.

Ambrose, Nathan Robert. 2008. “Overcoming Barriers to Student Achievement: A Case Analysis of High-Poverty Schools Becoming High-Performing Schools”   [Ky.; two high schools].  Ed.D. diss., University of Kentucky. 242 pp.

Asbury, Jo Ann. The Changing Image Of Appalachian Children’s Literature. n.p.: 1995. ERIC. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

Barrett, N., Cowen, J., Toma, E., & Troske, S. (2015). “Working With What They Have: Professional Development as a Reform Strategy in Rural Schools.” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 30:10, 1-18.

Best, Ramona Goddard. 2002. “Perceptions of the Educational Experiences of Students Educated Exclusively in K–12 Rural Unit Schools in East Tennessee.” Ed.D. diss., East Tennessee State University. 166 pp.

Bicknell, Teresa Adele. 2001. “Faculty Perceptions of School Success in Four High-Achieving, High-Poverty Schools in Appalachian Tennessee.” Ed.D. diss., Tennessee State University. 213 pp.

Brashears, Kathy. “Appalachian Picturebooks, Read-alouds, and Teacher-led Discussion: Combating Stereotypes Associated with the Appalachian Region.” Childhood Education 88:1 (2012): 30+. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Brashears, Kathy McCollum.  2004. “‘They Ain’t all Blueberries’: An Examination of the Teaching of Writing Practices in an Appalachian Elementary School.” [Ky.] Ed.D. diss., University of Kentucky. 232 pp.

Bratt, K. “A Dozen Great Books for Pre-Service Teachers: Ethical Children Negotiate the World Around Them.” Journal of Children’s Literature, 35:2 (2009): 77-80.

Burriss, Theresa L., Gantt, Patricia M. eds. Appalachia In the Classroom: Teaching the Region. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2013.

Bo Chang “Education for Social Change: Highlander Education in the Appalachian Mountains and Study Circles in Sweden.” International Journal of Lifelong Education, 32:6 (2013): 705-723, DOI: 10.1080/02601370.2013.773571

Chenoweth, E., & Galliher, R. “Factors Influencing College Aspiration of Rural West Virginian High School Students.” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 19:2 (2004): 1-14.

Clark, Amy D. “Voices in the Appalachian Classroom.” Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community. Clark, Amy D., Hayward, Nancy M. eds. The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Cockley, Suzanne K.  2003. “School and Community on Their Minds: Appalachian Perspectives on Education” [attitudes toward leadership and familial structure of schools]. Ph.D. diss., University of Virginia. 148 pp.

Corey, Jean Thompson. 2000. “The Gendering of Literacies: The Reading and Writing Practices of Adolescent Girls in Rural Appalachia.” D.A. diss., Middle Tennessee University. 132 pp.

Cox, Prince Elizabeth. “Perspectives Of Educators Engaged In Continuous Improvement Efforts Within A Rural Appalachian School Setting.” n.p.: 2014. Library Catalog. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Department of Education, (ED). “Appalachian Region: A Report Identifying And Addressing The Educational Needs.” US Department Of Education (2011): ERIC. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Elam, Constance. 2003. “That’s Just the Way It Was: Teacher Experiences in Appalachian Kentucky, 1930-1960” [Pike Co.; 16 retired teachers interviewed]. Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin. 225 pp.

Eller, Ronald D. Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. The University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Ellis, Michael. “The Treatment of Dialect in Appalachian Literature.” Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community. Clark, Amy D., Hayward, Nancy M. eds. The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Ensor, Allison. “American Realism and the Case for Appalachian Literature.” In Higgs, Robert J., Ambrose N. Manning, and Jim Wayne Miller, eds. Appalachia Inside Out: A Sequel to Voices from the Hills: Volume 2 Culture and Custom. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. pp.630-641.

Fisher, S. “Claiming Appalachia – and the Questions That Go With it.” Appalachian Identity: A Roundtable Discussion. Appalachian Journal, 38:1 (2010): 58-61.

Goodman, S., Cocca, C. “Spaces of Action: Teaching Critical Literacy for Community Empowerment in the Age of Neoliberalism.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique. 13:3 (2014): 210-226.  http://education.waikato.ac.nz/research/files/etpc/files/2014v13n3dial1.pdf

Haaga, J. (2004). Educational Attainment in Appalachia. Washington, D.C: Appalachian Regional Commission.

Hall, Abigail R. “Mountains of Disappointment: The Failure of State-Led Development Aid in Appalachia.” The Journal of Private Enterprise 29:2 (2014): 83–100.

Hendrickson, Katie A. “Student Resistance To Schooling: Disconnections With Education In Rural Appalachia.” High School Journal 4 (2012): 37. Academic OneFile. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Herrin, Roberta H. “Universal Themes in Appalachian Children’s Literature.” Education in Appalachia: Proceedings from the 1987 Conference on Appalachia. University of Kentucky, 1987. (117-123).

Herrin, Roberta T., Oliver, Sheila Q. Appalachian Children’s Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2009

Hektner, J. M. “When Moving Up Implies Moving Out: Rural Adolescent Conflict in the Transition to Adulthood.” Journal of Research in Rural Education 11:1 (1995): 3-14.

House, Silas. “In My Own Country.” Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community. Clark, Amy D., Hayward, Nancy M. eds. The University Press of Kentucky, 2013.

Howley, C. B., H. L. Harmon, and G. D. Leopold. “Rural Scholars or Bright Rednecks? Aspirations For a Sense of Place Among Rural Youth in Appalachia.” Journal of Research in Rural Education 12:3 (1996): 150-160.

Howley, Caitlin. “Purpose and Place: Schooling and Appalachian Residence.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 12:1 (2006): 58-78.

Johnson, Jerry, (ED) Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia, and Education CNA. “Contexts And Conditions Of Public K-12 Education In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, And West Virginia: A Descriptive Report.” Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia (2010): ERIC. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Jones, J. B. Book Learning: Exploring the Meaning of Formal Education in Central Appalachia. Available from ERIC. (1697503249; ED554531). Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.wncln.wncln.org/docview/1697503249?accountid=8337

Levin, F. “Encouraging Ethical Respect Through Multicultural Literature.” The Reading Teacher 6:1 (2007): 101-104.

McHaffie, Patrick H. “Contingency In The Local Provision Of Public Education.” Growth & Change 29:2 (1998): 196. Business Source Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

McLaren, Elizabeth, Rutland, Julie Harp. “Preparing Early Childhood Special Educators in Rural Kentucky.” Rural Special Education Quarterly 32:1 (2013).

McLaren, Peter. “Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education.” University of California: Los Angeles, 1998.

Miller, Danny, Ballard, Sandra, Herrin, Roberta, Mooney, Stephen D., Underwood, Susan, Wright, Jack. “Appalachian Literature.” In Edwards, Grace Toney, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox, eds. A Handbook to Appalachia: An Introduction to the Region. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. pp. 199-216.

Miller, Danny L., Sharon Hatfield, and Gurney Norman, eds. An American Vein: Critical Readings in Appalachian Literature. Athens, Ohio: Ohio Univ. Press, 2005.

Miller, Jim Wayne. “A People Waking Up: Appalachian Literature Since 1960.” In The Cratis Williams Symposium Proceedings. Boone, N.C.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1990.

Nelsen, Hart, and Frost, Eleanor. “Residence, Anomie, And Receptivity To Education Among Southern Appalachian Presbyterians.” Rural Sociology 36.4 (1971): 521-532. Education Source. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Sampson, Alice V., and Roberta T. Herrin. “The Appalachian Teaching Project: An Opportunity for Academic-Community Activism.” Appalachian Journal 34: ¾ (2007): 352-383.

Sepko, Catherine Cook. 1998. “Critical Literacy in an Appalachian Classroom” [S.C.; Appalachian Literature in the Curriculum]. Ph.D. diss., Clemson University. 395 pp.

Shaw, Thomas C., Alan J. De Young, and Eric W. Rademacher. “Educational Attainment in Appalachia: Growing With the Nation, But Challenges Remain.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 10:3 (2004): 307-329.

Slocum, Audra. “Look What They Said About Us: Social Positioning Work of Adolescent Appalachians in English Class.” English Teaching: Practice and Critique 13:3 (2014): 194-209. http://education.waikato.ac.nz/research/files/etpc/files/2014v13n3art10.pdf

Smith, Jennifer Sue. 2001. “Mining the Mountain of Appalachian Children’s Literature: Defining a Multicultural Literature.” Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University. 207 pp.

Teets, Sharon. “Education in Appalachia.” In Edwards, Grace Toney, JoAnn Aust Asbury, and Ricky L. Cox, eds. A Handbook to Appalachia: An Introduction to the Region. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006. pp. 119-142.

Valentine, Valerie D. 2008. “An Investigation of Authenticity and Accuracy in Children’s Realistic Fiction Picture Books Set in Appalachia.” Ph.D. diss., Ohio University. 252 pp.

Waitt, Alden. “‘A Good Story Takes Awhile’: Appalachian Literature in the High School Classroom.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 12:1 (2006): 79-101.

Wallace, Lisa A., and Diane K. Diekroger. “The Abcs In Appalachia”: A Descriptive View Of Perceptions Of Higher Education In Appalachian Culture.” (2000): ERIC. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

Wright, C. J. “Becoming to Remain: Community College Students and Post- Secondary Pursuits in Central Appalachia.” Journal of Research in Rural Education, 27:6 (2012). Retrieved from http://jrre./psu.edu/articles/27-6.pdf ​

Book Review-Trampoline

Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel by Robert Gipe has been one of the biggest, and dare I say, most pleasant surprises of 2015. The basic white cover features a hand drawn image of the novel’s protagonist, Dawn Jewell. The back cover features praise from well-loved Appalachian authors Ann Pancake, Silas House, and David Joy. These names are joined by the likes of Darnell Arnoult, George Singleton, Gurney Norman, Pamela Duncan, and Jim Minick on the interior book flaps. Virtually every page is sprinkled with a hand drawn picture. The novel, released by Ohio University Press, straddles the line between young adult/juvenile and solidly adult fiction. I’d argue any reader would really gain something from this book, yet the strong language and nature of some of the action may lend it towards more mature young people. Trampoline is centered around the character of Dawn Jewell, but to simply call it a “coming of age” story would limit the scope of the novel. What Gipe is able to do with the novel is present Appalachia and all of its complexities through the experiences of a teenage girl. As Dawn navigates her feelings on family, the environment, education, and love, Gipe is able to subtly allow the reader to explore all of the dark corners but ultimately the light of Appalachia. He bases the action against the backdrop of history, the battle to protect Blue Bear Mountain, thus lending a sense of accuracy to events that, at times, feel hard to swallow. Overall, Gipe has created a story that isn’t afraid to be ugly. He has built a character that feels frustrating but so familiar. He presents events that are frightening but they, in turn, give reason for the tight bond among Appalachian residents. This story isn’t about mountaintop removal. It’s more than just saving the mountain. It’s about saving oneself through learning to love the person you are.

The novel is told in five acts. With act one, we are introduced to Dawn Jewell. She lives with her grandmother, Mamaw, who is an environmentalist working on a petition to prevent surface mining on Blue Bear Mountain. Dawn’s Momma is in and out. She’s often high; she steals money from both her mother and her daughter. The novel’s action begins with a community meeting about surface mining on Blue Bear. The argument gets heated and suddenly Dawn finds herself standing up in front of everyone defending her grandmother. Dawn spews words about the land, the people, and their homes. She surprises even herself. It’s as if Dawn’s eyes have been opened to her cause. She didn’t know she felt so strongly about saving Blue Bear until she opened her mouth and listened to what was coming out. At this point it gets complicated. The second and third acts are dotted with seedy characters and dangerous situations. Dawn gets into fights at school, steals two cars, crashes one, and falls in love with a voice on the radio. It is not long after Dawn starts getting into trouble that we meet more of her family. Her brother, Albert, lives with their mother and uncle Hubert. All three, Momma, Albert, and uncle Hubert are in a constant state of drunk, high, or up to no good. Dawn floats in and out of their nonsense. She runs afoul of Keith Kelly, her cousin’s coal miner friend. Dawn gets the nerve to write to Willett Bilson, the voice on the radio. Dawn and Hubert’s strange relationship (he is her dead father’s brother and has a history with her mother) is at times tumultuous and at other times tender. The climax of the novel occurs as Dawn is driving, with Hubert in the passenger seat, when Keith Kelly is run off the road and ends up dead. This is Dawn’s breaking point. Act four sees Dawn being dropped off at her Aunt June’s house. Aunt June is the only family member to have escaped the mess that is the Jewell family. She lives in Kingsport, which is also where Willett Bilson lives. After several events, including a party, a trip back to Kentucky, a run in with Keith Kelly’s family, and a trip to the hospital, Mamaw tells Dawn to go back to Kingsport. Mamaw sees the influence Momma and Hubert have over Dawn. Instead of heading straight back to Aunt June’s, Dawn gets a ride over to Willett’s house. But this isn’t the fairytale Dawn had imagined. Willett looks nothing like the picture he sent to Dawn; she feels betrayed and lost. Act five is about resolution. Dawn concedes to giving Willett a chance, and although he is nothing like she thought, he may be just what she needs. Hubert and Dawn’s relationship finally comes to a head when Dawn decides to kill him at the same time that Hubert decides to kill himself. Instead they have a moment of healing. Momma and Hubert find religion. The story concludes with little fanfare. It isn’t tied up in a neat bow. Rather the last scene sees Dawn flying in a helicopter over a mountaintop removal site. She looks down to see Willett has spelled out “You Are Here” and we feel that Dawn has finally come to terms with who she is now, in this moment.

Gipe’s novel is in no ways sensational. Dawn’s experiences feel authentic. Her insecurities and struggles feel familiar. The outlandish qualities of her family are not wholly alien to the reader. This novel touches on mountaintop removal and activism but it’s given a more broad context within Appalachia. This novel, likely due to its older target audience, speaks more on the dark side of activism in the region. Several episodes within the book blatantly exhibit the cruel and hateful responses to environmental activism. By the end of the novel, Dawn realises why she is fighting for the mountain:

“Blue Bear wasn’t just about winning a fight. Everything I could see from Mamaw’s porch, every place I had run through on a four-wheeler, every birdsong and spring flower, every ferny frond that come up beside a yellow muddy trail—all that kept me alive sure as if it was air I was breathing. The trees and the roll of the earth helm me up like the ridge holds the cloud from passing so it can pour down rain. The vines and the rabbits and the squirrels and the orange lizards out on the rocks after a storm—all those things I’d forget when people dragged me down—I needed them close and always” (225).

This quote does more than just tell us why Dawn is fighting for the mountain. It shows how she is trying to save the mountain as a means to save herself. To me, the overarching theme is more than just placing value on the environment and stopping mountaintop removal. It is about coming to terms with oneself. Gipe shows us, through Dawn’s experiences, that each person is made up of many things. Dawn spends much of the book running. She tries to escape from her life as a Jewell when, really, it is this background that makes her who she is. Dawn is more than just a Jewell. Dawn is more than just an activist. She must accept all parts of herself; the chubby, high school dropout, activist artist that she is. The reader is challenged to see more than just the surface of Dawn. By extension, Gipe may be saying that the individual must see more of Appalachia than simply the surface. Appalachia is more than coal and mountains, just like Dawn is more than stealing cars and getting drunk. Gipe is stressing the importance of looking deeper. He is refusing to let the reader get away with limiting anyone or any place. Over the span of 312 pages the reader may just begin to understand what Gipe is implying. His message is subtle, but present.

​I honestly loved this book. It was a challenge to read. At times I was appalled at the position Dawn, a fifteen year old girl, was put in. But at the same time I was enthralled. Gipe does an amazing job of giving humanity to each character. This book is so different from other books I’ve read. It falls in between the two poles of light children’s literature and the heavy adult literature from Appalachia. When I began the book, I was somewhat distracted by the drawings but by the end they became a means of “seeing” what Gipe means by different dialogue or action. My only criticism is that this book can’t quite be placed in a category. It’s a bit heavy for students, yet following the journey of a teenager may not be what adult readers are looking for. Perhaps that is the point. By writing about these intense experiences, maybe Gipe is pushing the young and old reader alike to adapt. Perhaps he is saying that struggles and questions are universal; but what is important is learning who you truly are.

Book Review-Same Sun Here

Same Sun Here, co-written by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, was released in 2012.  This book follows the pen pal friendship of two young people from very different backgrounds living very different lives. Meena is an immigrant from India living with her family illegally in a rent controlled apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. River is a young boy living in semi-rural Kentucky in a house with his mother and grandmother. Both families have absent fathers that must live away for work. Both kids deal with extreme hardship and situations beyond their age. Meena struggles with the complications of being an alien and dealing with persecution from landlords. River struggles with mountaintop removal mining moving into his community. Through letters exchanged, the two young people learn to look at the world, and people, with new eyes. They disagree, explore, and bond in a way that allows each to move through their circumstances differently.

The opening of the novel covers the introduction of Meena and River. They have drawn each others name for a school pen pal assignment. They exchange several letters with various details about themselves, their families, homes, interests, and lives. It takes both Meena and River a little time to grow used to each other. They come from such different backgrounds that little disagreements and frustrations are inevitable. Before too long, River is describing how mountaintop removal coal mining has come to his hometown. His strong connection with nature makes this destructive mining upsetting to River. He finds himself in trouble at school for asking questions but with the support of his grandmother he stands up for the mountains he loves. Meena’s never seen Kentucky or mountaintop removal but, being from India, she has her fair share of stories to swap with River. She speaks on the women activists who stopped the cutting down of trees in the mountains. Meena also mentions how her family initially had to leave their home because of the building of a large dam meant to power far off Delhi. River is able to learn more about what the world is like beyond Appalachia through Meena’s experiences. Her family is living in a rent controlled apartment secretly. The residents of the Chinatown apartment are discriminated against for being immigrants. River would never have encountered issues like this without his interactions with Meena. Both friends share thoughts on the upcoming Obama elections. This places the novel in a specific time for readers, thus lending, in some ways, to its implied credibility. Meena’s parents are working on a citizenship class. Mid way through the novel, each pen pal has an experience that changes the tone of the novel and their relationship. Meena’s beloved grandmother, Dadi, dies alone in India. Meena’s resentment with being left by her parents with Dadi in India for seven years comes to a head and she has a big fight with her mother. Back down in Kentucky, River’s school is pummeled by three tons of boulders from the strip mine above town, resulting in several injuries and lots of publicity. It is a time of awakening for River’s mother, who has been dealing with depression. River’s close friend, Mark, has to have his leg amputated as a result of his injuries. This is the moment River gets serious about stopping mountaintop removal. In response to the accident at the school, community members travel to Frankfort to hold a rally and take their demands to the governor. The crucial moment occurs when the governor claims he will drink water from any stream in Kentucky (as a sign coal mining doesn’t cause pollution), River steps forward with the yellowed water from his stream. The governor shies away, but the image of River holding out his jar gains national attention. Not long after, Meena’s family, along with all of the rent controlled tenants, is evicted. It is time for the family to come together and Meena tells River know that all will be well. Especially because River’s publicity has rewarded him with a trip to New York. The book concludes with the hope that after numerous letters, the, now, best friends will finally be able to meet in person.

This novel is aimed at young adult readers. The simple language and age of the protagonists make it clear. The book, in reality, is only half Appalachian. Both House and Vaswani bring the unique and authentic voice of their own experience to the characters. For the sake of this analysis, we will focus mostly on the character of River and his experiences in Kentucky. In the novel, River is a decently familiar figure to readers who have studied Appalachian children’s literature. He loves his life in the woods. He has a strong bond with his family, particularly his grandmother, whom he looks up to, especially in light of his absent father and sick mother. When describing his life in Kentucky to his pen pal, River explains, “Almost every day we climb the path up the mountain and she tells me the names of all the trees, or we go along very quiet and watch the ground for treasures. We have a nature collection that has things in it like feathers from blue jays and redbirds, chips of quartz, buckeyes, acorns, hickory nuts, and lots more” (14). River, like so many youth from the mountains, feels a connection to the land and the objects that live there. This sets him up for a shock when he begins to understand the impact of mountaintop removal. It almost takes a character like River, who has a love for nature, to contrast the atrocities of mountaintop removal and make the destruction emotional to the reader. It is by reading of River, and his grandmother’s, response that we begin to feel the emotional impact of the physical removal of swatches of mountain land. House and Vaswani do an impressive job of making the character of River relatable to the reader. He is curious, argumentative, and opinionated like most young people. By building him into someone we might know, the authors successfully make him a character we root for. This becomes especially powerful in the aftermath of the rock slide on the school. Because the authors had built up a love and appreciation of River in the minds of the reader, the landslide and resulting injury is upsetting. The reader feels River’s pain for his friend and home. This sets the stage for the reader to better accept River’s next move. This book leaves the impression that a little action can make a big impact. Both River and Meena learn so much about humanity by taking the time to get to know each other. They come from completely different cultures but become best friends by acknowledging those qualities that make them similar, rather than dwelling on the qualities that make them different.

Overall, Same Sun Here is a modest, if idealistic, portrayal of growing up and dealing with the changing face of life in Appalachia. I enjoyed reading this book. It feels wholesome yet still deals with heavier issues like the environment, mental health, and death. By placing the point of view with the twelve year olds, the reader is able to approach these events with the innocence of youth. The form of the writing, as letters, allows the reader to build a relationship with the characters and get to know them at the same time they are getting to know each other. Character traits are revealed alongside action. There is no overhead narrator asking the reader to trust their analysis of the characters; we form our own opinions and also share the thoughts of the two protagonists. The authors are able to “get into the head” of the characters without the use of a narrator because children are more prone to say what they think. By using letters we get the impression that both Meena and River are being honest.

In conclusion, the authors use the letter format to introduce two relatable characters learning about each other and the world they are living in. This novel deals with tough happenings with the resilience known to children. It stresses the importance of overcoming stereotypes and seeking relationships with those who are different from you. Same Sun Here implies that it is only by understanding others that we will begin to understand, and be confident in, ourselves.