Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Every once in a while I get outside of my reading comfort zone - not too far mind you - but a little outside. Such was the case with my latest read. Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia is a collection of thirteen essays that covers from the mid-eighteenth century up to the 1930s.

Since my graduate school days at Appalachian State University, where I had a class in the History of Appalachia, in which I received my lowest grade (A-), I have appreciated this region more and more in historical studies. So, I was happy to see this book on the shelf while I was perusing at my local public library recently.

Editor Bruce E. Stewart, who was not at ASU when I was there, has done a fine job of gathering a diverse yet cohesive set of essays for this volume. The theme that seems to run through them is not an uncommon one for those that have read historical studies on the region. Each essay seemingly discounts the misconceptions and stereotypes of Appalachia as a land prone to violence and that somehow the isolation and remoteness lends to a tradition of hostile brutality. But, rather, these essays make clear that mountain violence "was a reflection and result of deeper tensions within the fabric of all American society."

Only a couple of the contributing authors were familiar names to me, but since I am not the most well-read person in this particular subject that was not a big surprise. Despite my unfamiliarity with the authors, I found each essay well researched and noted. However, as one might expect, I found some personally more interesting than others, and its not shocking that those tended to do with the antebellum and Civil War eras and race issues.

"'A Possession, or and Absence of Ears': The Shape of Violence in Travel Narratives about the Mountain South, 1779-1895," was a fascinating look at how visitors to Appalachia viewed the region and its inhabitants. Author Katherine E. Ledford contends that "depictions of physical conflict tell more about the traveler, his personal worries, and his cultural expectations - and more about an emerging U.S. national identity (bound by place and race) - than about the people of the Mountain South."

Durwood Dunn's "Violence against Slaves as a Catalyst in Changing Attitudes toward Slavery: An 1857 Case Study in East Tennessee," was especially intriguing due to its obvious subject matter and geographic setting of Rogersville, Tennessee. This sad story of extreme slave abuse in a largely nonslaveholding community showed this area's "latent antislavery sensibilities," and, as the author conjectures, is possibly another factor into the many complex reasons East Tennessee largely remained Unionist in the secession crisis and Civil War.

Other essays that I especially enjoyed were "Race and Violence in Urbanizing Appalachia: The Roanoke Riot of 1893," by Rand Dotson; "Assassins and Feudists: Politics and Death in the Bluegrass and Mountains of Kentucky", by T.R.C. Hutton; "'The Largest Manhunt in Western North Carolina's History': The Story of Broadus Miller," by Kevin W. Young; and "The Murder of Thomas Price: Image, Identity, and Violence in Western North Carolina," by Richard D. Starnes.

I recommend Blood in the Hills to anyone interested in learning more about the history of this misunderstood region. It illuminates the reasons Appalachia has earned an unfair reputation for violence and aggression that has been part of its label since the early nineteenth century. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5.

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