River of Earth

Mother was on the rag edge of crying. “Forever moving yon and back, setting down nowhere for good and all, searching for God knows what,” she said. “Where air we expecting to draw up to?” Her eyes dampened. “Forever I’ve wanted to set us down in a lone spot, a place certain and enduring, with room to swing arm and elbow, a garden-piece for fresh victuals, and a cow to furnish milk for the baby. So many places we’ve lived — the far side one mine camp and next the slag pile of another. Hardburly. Lizzyblue. Tribbey. I’m longing to set me down shorely and raise my chaps proper.”

Father’s ears reddened. He spoke, a grain angrily. “It was never meant for a body to be full content on the face of this earth. Against my wont it is to be treading the camps, but it’s bread I’m hunting, regular bread with a mite of grease on it. To make and provide, it’s the only trade I know, and I work willing.”

James Still’s classic of Appalachian literature River of Earth is full of passages like this that inspire compassion and respect for both sides of the problem, masterfully rendered in dialect. Published in 1940, River of Earth draws us into three years in the life of a Kentucky family riding the wave of the declining coal industry in the early twentieth century. Very quickly, 200 years of self-sufficiency among the farmers in the Kentucky hills had been replaced by dependency on a capricious livelihood in the mining camps. In this tale, the 7-year-old son of Alpha and Brack Baldridge narrates as the family progresses from one farm to another, from one mine to another.

The narrator is completely unsentimental, reporting in detail but refusing, as do the story’s other characters, to intrude. The meaning is left to us, and Still has enough confidence in his writing to let the story unfold without moralizing. We learn much about the Kentucky landscape, rendered in exact and poetic detail by this narrator who knows the names of all the foliage and topographical features and has an extensive store of natural knowledge. He also observes his human subjects keenly, deftly capturing their turns of speech and body language.

I have an enormous respect for James Still, whose work testifies to a deep love for his place and heritage. I read this novel perhaps 15 years ago and loved it, but on this second reading I felt I was experiencing it for the first time all over again. It positively sings. The best sculptures have the effect of freeing the figure innate to the marble with a few deft strokes of a master sculptor. This book exhibits the same principle for literature; it seems less a literary creation than a window framing some truer, more clearly seen vision of human life.

The question the narrator’s mother asks above is echoed elsewhere in the novel in a sermon by itinerant preacher Brother Sim Mobberley. I close with his words, which give rise to the title of this tale that leaves us pondering from whence we come, and where we’re headed:

Oh, my children, where air we going on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying — the living and the dead riding the waters? Where air it sweeping us?