As a kid in Appalachia, every 4th of July my parents packed my brother and I into the car and drove us to my grandparent’s log cabin to celebrate. We ate all of the grilled hamburgers, open fire-roasted hot dogs, and all the s’mores a kid could ever ask for while sitting on their back porch or chatting around a campfire.
Fifteen years later, our lives have completely changed—we’ve lost some family members and added others—and none of us live in the same state anymore. But around July 4th, I still get the itch to travel back to the mountains and spend the holiday with my family. Thanks to COVID-19, this year is different, and my heart aches that I can’t go home to surround myself with nature, recharge my batteries, and chat with my family as we sit on the back porch basking in the Ohio River Valley’s humid summer air.
Like any good bibliophile in an emotional crisis, I turned to audiobooks. I always keep an emergency stack of Appalachian books in my living room, ensuring that I have a way to get back home when I need to. This time, I chose Southernmost by Silas House, a gay Kentucky author who has made a name for himself as one of Appalachia’s most treasured writers. Asher, Southernmost’s protagonist, is a pastor whose deepest regret is rejecting his brother when he told Asher that he was gay. When a flood destroys a local gay couple’s house, Asher welcomes them into his home so they can have a place to stay for the night. But Asher’s wife refuses and turns them away, which starts a series of events that lead to Asher setting off to Key West to find his long lost brother and make amends.
House’s writing evokes the intense feelings of his characters, making it so easy to become attached to them. Their struggles are our struggles. Their joys are our joys. Charlie Thurston’s performance—the quivers in his voice, the beautiful Southern twang—accentuates Asher’s emotional journey throughout the novel. While I listened to this audiobook and stared off my own back porch here in South Carolina, House’s storytelling mesmerized me. With Southernmost, House gave me a doorway that took me straight to the very place I was longing to visit.
Of course, I don’t just miss Appalachia as a place; I also miss its people. So next I picked up Hill Women by Cassie Chambers. In her memoir, Chambers shares her journey of leaving her hometown in Berea, Kentucky, to attend Ivy League universities including Harvard Law. With her newly earned law degree in hand, Chambers returns to Kentucky to work for an organization that gives women from low economic backgrounds access to legal representation. She uses her privilege to help women from her community because hardworking hill women like her clients, made her who she is today.
Throughout her memoir, Chambers takes moments to tell the stories of the other women in her family who built the foundation for her to have the opportunities she did. She lays it all out, both the good and the bad, portraying the hill women in her family as fully flawed and fully human. She narrates her own memoir, and I can’t help but listen to the slight lilt in her voice, the accent she and I share, and marvel how you can still hear that touch of Kentucky. In a time where more and more of Appalachia’s young people are leaving the region, Chambers’s memoir gives an important examination of the emotional journey that comes from leaving the mountains and realizing how the world sees the culture you love and what strength and grit it takes to return and try to make it better.
I may not be sitting on my parents’ back porch watching my Corgi chase fireflies this year, but I can still open a book and return, even if it’s just for a few hours, to the place my heart calls home.