I am more and more drawn to learning about the people, culture, and history of Appalachia. My paternal heritage is connected to the western North Carolina Great Smoky Mountain foothills near Asheville. I recently learned about a classic fiction entitled River of Earth, by James Still. Written in 1940—the same year John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published—(both books had the same publisher) River of Earth is one of those fantastic finds, a deep, rich journey into the mindset, culture, and poverty-stricken lifestyle of the people of Appalachia in the 1920s and 1930s. It may be I am one of the few who did not know River of Earth existed. I simply want to encourage lovers of literature and American culture to read this wonderful book.
River of Earth is appropriately classified as a work of fiction. But like a lot of fiction its author leaves little doubt that his subject matter originates in portraits of actual people and events. River of Earth is told from the perspective of an eight year old boy relating the trials of a coal mining family during the Great Depression. The book is as real as any non-fiction account of the Great Depression, and especially the region of Appalachia, might be. It warrants our attention and praise. Our human senses are struck hard by its message.
The book’s title echoes a fundamentalist preacher’s labeling the ancient Appalachian mountain chain a ‘River of Earth’ during one of his Sunday morning sermons. Dean Cadle writes in the Forward section of River of Earth that River and Steinbeck’s timeless epic about the Joad family’s journey to California in the depths of the Great Depression, “are the only books chronicling Depression years that have continued to gain readers in more affluent ones. The major difference between them is that Steinbeck’s story deals with a calamity that has struck America only once in its lifetime, while [author] Still is writing of the struggles that have plagued the mountain people since the country was settled.” The final chapter of the chronic poverty throughout Appalachia is still far from its conclusion today.
River of Earth’s style of writing is wonderfully rich encased in deceptive simplicity. Witness the book’s first few sentences: “The mines on Little Carr closed in March. Winter had been mild, the snows scant and frost-thin upon the ground. Robins stayed the season through, and the sapsuckers came early to drill the black birch beside our house. Though Father had worked in the mines, we did not live in the camps. He owned the scrap of land our house stood upon, a garden patch, and the black birch was the only tree on all the barren slope above Blackjack.” Simple, clear writing makes River of Earth’s story all the more compelling when framed by its tragic plot. And very real.
The trials of the writer’s daily existence encompasses loss of work, loss of hope, starvation, and utter destitution. The binding force of the storyline is the hearty resolve—maybe it is resignation—lying deep within this family’s marrow, a rock-solid resiliency that guides them through living in a smoke house while teetering on the brink of destruction and living on milky water and corn pone, the actual starvation of a horse the family relies to plow fields in the spring to grow crops for the coming winter, and an ongoing argument between Mother and Father about whether or not to “turn out” Father’s adult brothers who do not work but simply are more mouths to feed in the house. The baby’s unhappy fate only underlines how desperate the times were.
The brutally raw account of Father rescuing a calf choking to death on a rough corn cob, the cruel loss of a newborn colt, a biblically-reminiscent story about the onslaught of clouds of pigeons consuming entire crops intended for the coming winter’s sustenance, tells us that nature herself is plotting against the family’s survival. The weight of family dysfunction, no prospect of a paying job, and little and sometimes no food to see the family through some days is enough to break the reader’s heart. Where does the family find the strength to persevere? We would do well to recall this can rightly be considered the story of a region, not just a family story. And with the Great Depression, in varying degrees it was the story of an entire nation.
River of Earth is fiction. But it is far too honest, too human, too real and believable, to be considered a manufactured saga of a historically stricken region deep within our American landscape. Is the book great literature? Compared to what? Clearly Steinbeck remains one of the more celebrated writers in American literary history. And author James Still never came close to attaining that level of recognition. That aside, River of Earth is an extremely important slice of Appalachia, a culture that has far too often been ignored or left behind by the full-speed-ahead achievements of this country over the past 100 years. Which is precisely why River of Earth needs to be rediscovered. Relevant as ever, it remains worthy of our attention and praise and reflection. It is genuine Americana told in a brilliant, clear, lyrical style. I want to make sure people know about it.