Book Review

Laura Dennis on
scholarly essays edited by Laura Wright and Jessica Cory
University of Georgia Press, 2023


As I sit down to write, the rain promised in the forecast has yet to arrive. My dog and I are grateful we can take our morning walk, but sad to see our favorite pond shrunk to little more than a giant mudhole. Trees have been cut for right-of-way so that a newly built house can have a green, creature-free expanse of yard. Some, of course, would argue that environmental fluctuations are part of the natural order. To some extent, I agree; I just wonder how often that includes the buzz of chainsaws. Such intersections and conflicts between the human and the natural world form the heart of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place, a collection of 16 essays edited by Laura Wright and Jessica Cory. 

These essays use environmental and ecocritical studies to engage with Appalachian literature and film. The volume is organized into eight sections containing one to three essays each, all of which bear headings related to trail lingo and hiking: “Trailhead”; “Walking in Woods”; “Deja Views”; “Uphill Both Ways”; “Hidden Gems”; “Trail Magic”; “A New Overlook”; and “What Lies Beyond the Summit.” These are prefaced by an introductory section entitled “Compass” in which Cory and Wright clearly lay out their intentions for the book:

If we are to broaden our understanding of the human condition, Appalachian literature needs
to be acknowledged, read, and critiqued not only by those who live within the region but also
by those who live beyond it, a goal that ecocritical analyses can help achieve by broadening
the scholarly audience.

They also explain that, as the section headings suggest, “This collection is arranged to reflect the experiences and trajectories one might encounter while sojourning through a natural environment,” a description that proves accurate throughout. At times readers revisit familiar authors, places, tropes, and themes; at others they pause in wonder to contemplate work either previously unknown to them or shown in a new light. While many pieces have a somber tone that is understandable given the subject matter, a few, such as Cynthia Belmont’s study of the 2013 film Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, offer moments of joy.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of the collection is its variety. The carefully edited essays range from 10 to 23 pages in length, with both single-author and more broadly thematic studies in the mix. Although the bulk of the essays focus on Central and Southern Appalachian literature and film, Northern Appalachia is represented as well, a pleasant surprise for this reader who has become somewhat accustomed to finding that part of her origins omitted in work about Appalachia. The diverse theoretical frameworks and lenses include Aristotelian poetics, Virgil’s Georgics, the pastoral and post-pastoral, the “slow violence” of colonialism, agrarianism, ecosexuality, ecotheology, ecofeminism, queer theory, Affrilachia, Appalachian Studies, postsouthernism, and what for lack of a better term I will call ecocriticism proper, a term coined by William Rueckert in 1978 and further elucidated by Cheryll Glotfelty and others in The Ecocriticism Reader, published in 1996.

. . . two key arguments that recur throughout the volume: the world
at large should be reading these writers, and they should be doing
so in part to help avoid and undo the binaries too often applied
to a region that remains profoundly misunderstood. 

The authors included are too numerous to list; I originally tried to separate them into well-known and less-known, but soon had to abandon the effort. Aside from nationally recognized names like Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, or Wendell Berry, those I know may not be known to others. Moreover, I fear I would not know as many as I do if I did not live in Kentucky or had not spent time at the Appalachian Writers Workshop at Hindman Settlement School. This underscores two key arguments that recur throughout the volume: the world at large should be reading these writers, and they should be doing so in part to help avoid and undo the binaries too often applied to a region that remains profoundly misunderstood. 

As alluded to above, a key theme of the collection involves the need for humans to cease seeing themselves as separate from the natural world. Nature is not opposed to culture, nor can we any longer follow Descartes and claim to separate body and mind, as Theresa Burriss shows in her analysis of Jim Minick’s Fire is Your Water. All of this belongs to a broader concern with undoing boundaries between inside and outside, native and non-native, Appalachian and outsider. Categories like these are unstable, mutable, subject to change depending on who is using them. Not only does Appalachian Ecocriticism refuse the limitations imposed by binary oppositions, but also it undoes all-too-familiar tropes and assumptions, whether it be the equation of women with nature, the tendency to reduce place to a matter of landscape, or the definition of Appalachia as rural and White. Caleb Pendygraft summarizes this well in his examination of Carter Sickels’s novel The Prettiest Star:

There isn’t a single way to define what it means to be Appalachian. Appalachia has been cast as
one of America’s Others for quite some time. You could say that its othered status was in part
shaped by the ARC’s [Appalachian Regional Commission] influence, but mostly the othered
status has been formed by outsiders’ perspectives. […] Appalachia in the cultural imagination is simultaneously set apart from America and deeply part of it.

Whether it be Michael S. Martin’s study of 19th-century travel writers, Cameron Williams Crawford’s analysis of Crystal Wilkinson’s The Birds of Opulence, Kevin E. O’Donnell’s innovative reading of a familiar Wallace Stevens poem, or Stewart Plein’s exploration of the use of rhododendrons on the covers of “local color literature,” to name just a few, each essay sheds its own light on the volume’s central themes. While some may wish for more essays on BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors and themes or for treatment of authors other than those included, this review focuses on what is there rather than what is not. The book fulfills the goals set out for it by the editors and does so in a highly readable way. Although Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place is a scholarly volume complete with endnotes, bibliographies, suggestions for further reading, and index, the essays are clearly written and compellingly argued, allowing readers to revisit well-loved authors and texts and discover new ones as well. The scholarship in these essays exposes problems, suggests a “spectrum of solutions,” and reveals new understandings of both literature and life in the Appalachian region.

In a world filled with brokenness, hurt, and need, it can be hard to know where to turn our attention. The various intersectional approaches in Appalachian Ecocriticism both complexified and clarified my thinking. The harm we do to the land foreshadows and enables violence based on race, gender, religion, sexuality, national identity, even political party. The stories we tell about these things matter. Few places show that more clearly than Appalachia. 

Laura Dennis
is a Kentucky writer, mother, Mimi, and professor with family roots in northern Appalachia. Her work has appeared in Change Seven, Northern Appalachia Review, Bluff & Vine, MER Vox, The Red Branch Review, and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. She reviews books for several publications and co-edits book reviews for MER. She enjoys music, photography, hiking, and spending time with her friends, family, and pets (three cats and a dog). 

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