Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains, by Cassie Chambers, Ballantine Books, 304 pages
Many places are judged by their wealth (or lack thereof). Those with a strong economy, elite schools, and a cornucopia of stores and restaurants are successes. Those without are failures. Invariably the question is: “What went wrong?”
Thus Appalachia—one of the poorest regions in the U.S., and home to overdose mortality rates 60 to 70 percent higher than the rest of the country—has become the focus of many articles and books of late, each trying to consider what went “wrong.” Books like Hillbilly Elegy alerted many in America to the struggles of Appalachia and the brokenness of many families in its hollers. Rural writers like Heartland author Sarah Smarsh, on the other hand, have emphasized the importance of portraying the dignity of rural people, even when writing about poverty and decline.
Many rural economies have been subject to extractive practices for generations, which have slowly depleted local wealth and social capital, replacing them with a dearth of resources and hope. Economist John Ikerd has referred to this as “the economic colonization of rural America,” and warns that it will continue to hurt the wellbeing and prosperity of the people who suffer from it.
Cassie Chambers’s Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains, like Smarsh’s Heartland, considers the dignity and resiliency of poor working-class families in this region of America. It is a book that seeks to offer a more nuanced look at people who have struggled and worked together in rural Appalachia for generations, focusing specifically on the Appalachian women who bind their families together, protect their kith and kin, and spur each other on to success.
Chambers spent many of her early years in Owsley County, Kentucky, working and living alongside her aunt, grandparents, and cousins outside Booneville. Her grandparents and aunt worked sharecropping tobacco and had done so for decades. But Chambers’s mother, Wilma, moved to Berea for college, got married, and finished her degree while caring for her young daughter. This marks a turning point in Chambers’s life. While her grandmother got married as a teenager and spent her life working the land, Wilma, with the help of a college degree, goes on to build a comfortable, middle-class life in Berea. Chambers considers the struggle and hardship her mother and father endured to “make it,” as well as the sacrifices Wilma’s sister and mother made to help her succeed. It’s obvious that Wilma isn’t better than the rest of her family. Rather, each of them gave up something to help her leave Booneville and finish college.
This book, then, is about the savvy, kindly hill women who stay in Booneville, and about the outliers (like Wilma and Cassie) who leave for college and greater opportunity. It is about the similarities they share and the cultural and educational divides that threaten to separate them.
Chambers is careful to show how little the working-class existence of her childhood hurt her chances for success. On the contrary, she learned resilience, grit, and loyalty from her mother and father, aunt and uncles, cousins and grandparents. All these skills, she argues, helped her to graduate from Yale. And all these strong ties to hill people, it seems, are what pulled her back to Appalachia after she graduated. She is one of the few and proud “returners” (or, as Wes Jackson and Smarsh would call them, “homecomers”) who choose to invest their talents back in their rural context. While Chambers did not move back to Booneville or Berea, she has moved back to Kentucky—and has dedicated her law degree to helping other “hill women,” women who have struggled with poverty, abuse, and the injustices of the courts. This book also considers their stories and struggles. Chambers writes of women who often don’t have the money to navigate a complicated and expensive legal system, even when their safety and wellbeing are at risk, and considers the ways we could make justice more accessible.
This book shines early on, when Chambers writes about her forebears, her community, and its history. Granny, Aunt Ruth, and Wilma are fascinating and delightful people, and the stories of their labor and love are often staggering. Other women mentioned in the first part of the book, such as Eula Hall—who started a health clinic to provide care to low-income Eastern Kentuckians—make clear the importance of Chambers’s hill women. In one chapter, Chambers writes of the many ways that the Owsley County family helped her mother and father as they finished college. In another, she writes of a neighbor who installed a bathroom in her grandparents’ house, out of his own pocket, after Chambers’s grandfather became sick. “This neighbor knew Papaw, respected his work ethic and how he raised his family,” she says. “He had experienced Granny’s hospitality and kind smile. … He didn’t have much money himself, but people were more important than dollars in the bank. He had to trust that if he was ever in need, someone would do the same for him.”
Rural communities have often benefited, as Ikerd writes, from a strong gift economy: “‘Giving someone a hand’ wasn’t limited to helping out in emergencies, but was given anytime someone ‘needed a hand,’” he has written. “These communities, created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but also gave them a common sense of purpose.” A gift economy is difficult to quantify—but as Chambers and Ikerd make clear, it is a tangible means of cultivating wellbeing and belonging. Despite poverty and hardship, it indicates that community is working—even thriving—the way it should.
Unfortunately, the middle section of Hill Women is less entrancing. Here, the book diverges from its early promise—to tell the stories of forgotten or ignored hill women—to focus instead on Chambers’s own life: her journey from Berea, to boarding school, to an Ivy League college. Hill Women wants to be both a personal memoir and a story about a place. In some ways, the two obviously overlap: Chambers grew up in Appalachia and is one of its hill women. But the introduction and title suggest that it means to tell the story of multiple hill women, and so the singular focus at the midway point is disappointing.
This is not to suggest that Chambers’s story isn’t fascinating and important. It is. But tales of her days at boarding school, her college boyfriend, and struggles with the meritocracy and class divides of Yale take up too many pages for a book that is supposed to be about Appalachia, about tales that “have ricocheted within the mountains, growing more faint with time,” as Chambers puts it in her introduction. It could be that she ran out of stories, but those she does tell are so tantalizing, I left the book hungry for more. We’ve read memoirs about kids who left Appalachia for the big city and for Ivy League universities. I was eager to read more about the Aunt Ruths and Wilmas.
The ending of the book twists into politics—something it dabbles in throughout, but rarely focuses on. This makes sense, since Chambers is running for office, a member of the Democratic Party, and a staunch opponent of Trump. Her work to reform the legal system on behalf of her clients is interesting, but it again made the book feel a bit imbalanced. The early parts of Hill Women are far more focused on anecdotal history and stories of community resilience than on politics and policy. There’s much that could be written about the forms of sharecropping that Chambers’s family experienced, as well as the impact of coal mining and rural policy on communities like Booneville. But balancing the personal and political, anecdotal and philosophical, is no easy task.
These critiques aside, Hill Women is a lovely book about family, community, and place. The women who fill its pages (even those who appear and disappear within a few sentences) are fiery and fascinating, and I would welcome more stories from Chambers about the women she grew up with, and the women she currently advocates for in Kentucky. These are the stories of dignity and hope that we should be telling about our rural regions—stories that, rather than seeking to cast blame, show all the people and places worth emulating.
Teaser photo credit: Coal company houses in Jenkins, Kentucky, photographed by Ben Shahn in 1935Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appalachia#/media/File:Jenkins-kentucky-1935.jpg