What comes to mind when you hear the word Appalachia? Whatever it is, it probably won’t be the same after you read this engrossing, sometimes shocking and often witty debut novel from Madeline Ffitch, who is part of the direct-action collective Appalachia Resist.
Helen has little knowledge of the foothills of Appalachian Ohio when she moves there from Seattle with her boyfriend, seeking cheap land to park their camper and relocate his landscaping business. But he soon leaves to work in the oil fields up north, and Helen is left to cope with the approaching winter alone. She earns a little doing tree work with Rudy, an alcoholic loner escaping civilization who’s living in a lean-to on abandoned coal company land. He introduces Helen to Lily and Karen, a couple living on the Women’s Land Trust, where no males are allowed.
Lily is expecting their first child, and when she gives birth to Perley, a boy, they are forced to move. Helen offers to let them live on her 20 acres, and while Lily cares for Perley, Helen and Karen build a “house” for the four of them, “basically livable,” though the porch leaks, the front door lets in daylight top and bottom, their toilet is a bucket, and multiple black snakes soon take up residence.
In alternating chapters, Lily, Karen, Helen and Rudy share what life is like for them in this downtrodden corner of Appalachia—a hill town with a hardware store, a school, an IGA grocery store, a diner and 30 bars. They survive, barely making it through each winter by eating acorns they’ve gathered in the fall, even the ones full of grubs, for “a burst of protein.”
But the outside world encroaches on their nontraditional, isolated life when, at age, 7, Perley asks to go to school. Though Karen objects, calling school “regimental brainwashing,” the two mothers relent, and Perley gets his first taste of television, electricity and a real friend his age. Their situation disintegrates when social services find Perley’s living conditions unacceptable, place him in foster care and mandate that Lily and Karen come up with a “reunification plan” within 90 days. The remainder of Ffitch’s remarkable novel portrays the ways in which they try to meet that goal, bringing all their skills and wiles to bear to allow their son to come home.
Ffitch’s survival saga of strong, independent women will appeal to readers of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina and the realistic novels by Manette Ansay, especially Vinegar Hill.