Appalachian writer Robert Gipe’s first illustrated novel, Trampoline, was an award-winning coming-of-age tale set in rural Kentucky, where a teenage girl named Dawn Jewell recounts the story of her grandmother’s fight against a mountaintop removal coal mine company. Six years after the events of Trampoline, Weedeater finds 22-year-old Dawn living with her husband and 4-year-old daughter in Tennessee. But the world of Canard County, Kentucky, calls her back. Dawn’s narration forms a duet with that of Gene, a lawn-care worker in love with Dawn’s Aunt June, who is determined to rescue Dawn’s mother from herself.
With Trampoline and Weedeater, Gipe delivers some of the most vivid Appalachian characters we’ve ever read. There are no clichés or stereotypes here. Illustrations of Dawn and Gene deliver clever one-liners and elevate the narration to a face-to-face relationship with the reader.
We asked Gipe to show us around Canard County, so to speak.
I live in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The hillside out my kitchen window is steep—69 steps up to the front door of my house from the road below, and 75 out the back door up to the road above. The mountains are everywhere where I live.
The world in my novel Weedeater is as steep as the hillside out the window. I tried to make that world as vivid as the world I live in. In the place I live, cars get wrecked. Relationships go sour. Jobs disappear. People get grouchy. People keep going. They shoot off fireworks. They go to the lake to fish in boats big and little. They go to stock car races in motor homes. They go to church in pickup trucks. They ride around on four-wheelers to be alone with their beloved or to hunt for ginseng, or just to feel their hair blow in the wind.
In the place I live, sometimes food runs low. Electricity gets cut off. People die from falling off roofs, from coal mines collapsing on them, from eating bad, from trying to save people, from taking too many drugs. They drown. They get struck by lightning. They die in their own time in their own beds surrounded by friends and family and their little dogs. Snakes bite them. Spiders bite them. Dogs bite them. They comfort one another. They pray for one another. They scheme against one another. They tattle. They keep secrets. They buy new clothes. They wear old clothes. They fix their own water heaters and roof their own houses. They change their own oil and fix their own washing machines. They make doll clothes and knitted things that fit over your toaster, and burn Bible verses into pieces of wood, and they sell these things off car hoods and in flea markets and on the Internet. They also write books and keep up with what’s going on in the world and make art, and sometimes they fix soup beans and cornbread to eat, and sometimes they fix chicken curry.
Sometimes people here organize strikes against their bad bosses, and sometimes they just go on to work. Sometimes they rise up in protest against things that aren’t fair and aren’t right, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they cry because they had to move away, and sometimes they cry because they had to stay. Most times people here know who their local politicians are. Most times they’re aggravated with them. Sometimes they say, “Well, they’re doing the best they can.” And as for national politicians, let’s just say most people I know think the electoral college and gerrymandering are highly problematic and but two examples of how the game may or may not be rigged against us and are not surprised when their neighbors have trouble taking participatory politics seriously.
This area where I live has never consistently had a good rate of employment. Things might go OK for a while, but then there are layoffs and companies going out of business, and so things have been rough here forever. The bad things that can happen to people pile up. And repeat. And wear a person down. Wear a whole place down.
I wrote Weedeater knowing people who live where I do also read books. So I try to write something for them that deals with what is hard, but also catches how much fun we have, and how much spirit for surviving we have, and I try to write books that mess around with ideas about how things could maybe get better. But then I also write books to try and catch what it’s like when a whole bunch of things go wrong at once for readers for whom not so many things have gone wrong. I grew up with only a few things going wrong and most things going right for most people I know. It’s easier when fewer things go wrong in your life to think you’re smarter or better than the people who are always in the soup. But you’re not. You’re just luckier. And so I try to write stories that help people identify with and love people with too-complicated lives. I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for them. I want people to see what it’s like, and realize maybe hard-luck people are actually pretty smart and creative and have a lot of grit and are a lot of fun to root for, whether you are one of them or not.
Illustrations © 2018 Robert Gipe. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Ohio University Press. Author photo credit Meaghan Evans.