Since I spent my blog last week talking about the value of seeking out Appalachian history and culture while serving here, I thought I would offer up some book and movie recommendations that mean a lot to me as an Appalachian. I’m sure many have seen Deliverance or heard of The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, but positive, accurate representations of Appalachia are harder to come by. So, I thought I would help guide y’all towards a few titles that break away from these harmful stereotypes and provide a more complete picture of Appalachia. Admittedly, this may be a little West Virginia-centric, but I think the lessons that can be learned are applicable to the rest of our service area. Also, yesterday, June 20th was West Virginia day, so I think the Mountain Mama deserves some recognition. Whether you have already gone on your ASP trip this summer or are counting down the days until you serve this summer, you can have a glimpse into Appalachia from home when watching or reading these works! 

A foundational film in my life is October Sky (1999), which tells the true story of Homer Hickman, a young West Virginian, whose science project takes him to the national stage and changes his town’s perception of academics. Rather than opt into the traditional lifestyle of a coal miner like his father, Homer defies the norm and chooses to follow his passion of building rockets. This movie didn’t inspire me to be a scientist, but it did show me that you can go against the status quo and still be accepted in my home state of West Virginia. A heartwarming, big Hollywood movie about a West Virginian wasn’t something I had ever seen before, and really haven’t encountered since. It always felt like something I could take pride in, like this tiny bit of representation was all I needed to feel comfortable in my identity as a West Virginian. Not to mention the rockstar cast of both Jake Gyllenhaal AND Laura Dern? It’s simply too good. So, if you want a casual viewing that zooms in on the life of a West Virginia icon, give October Sky a watch!  

Emily Hilliard’s Making Our Future is a much more recent addition to my catalog that has shifted my perspective on what West Virginia is. The text explores different niche facets of West Virginia culture to challenge commonly held perceptions of the state. Hilliard writes of independent pro-wrestling, a coal community fighting to preserve their history, and hot dogs in the Mountain State. Appalachia is often looked at with nostalgia for old lifestyles and centuries old traditions. While these parts of culture should be honored and are immensely important, it can be harmful to view the culture as singular and stagnant. I have fallen victim to this and failed to see the bigger picture of West Virginia culture, longing for a life of quilt-making and foraging in the mountains. Although these traditions are still alive, there are so many additional aspects of the state. Hilliard’s book completely deconstructs any notion that West Virginia is a relic of the past that has no potential to move forward, but a site of constantly evolving culture that is happening all around us. Making Our Future is an incredibly fun read that will surprise you no matter how much you know about the state. Maybe it will inspire you to try something new when visiting! 

If you’re looking for a lighter read, Silas House’s A Parchment of Leaves is a wonderful novel set in early 20th century rural Kentucky. The tale follows a young Cherokee woman named Vine whose family has lived on the land for generations. Vine makes the decision to marry a man outside of her tribe and move away from her familial land. As an Indigenous woman, Vine’s relationship to land is strong and transfers over to her new home. The depiction of her connection to the Earth is vivid and reflective of my own and many other Appalachians. House ascribes a spiritual essence to the land that captures the mountains we are serving in this summer. Aside from this, the novel provides a strong female character who forges her own way and navigates the landscape of a quickly industrializing Appalachia. House is able to place the reader in this time period and craft a world that shows all the ins and outs of the culture at the time.  

Although this is a small list, all the above-listed pieces are important to me and could very well be important to many others who are involved with ASP. No matter your involvement or immersion in Appalachia, they offer stories that can change anyone’s perspective and even if they don’t, each book and movie is enjoyable and digestible. I hope y’all take the time to sit down with any of these that pique your interest and continue searching for Appalachian media in the future. Trust me, there is so much more than these pieces that wonderfully capture the region! 

Taylor Beam
Story Gathering Intern