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Friday, March 31, 2023

Hillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern AppalachiaHillbilly Women: Struggle and Survival in Southern Appalachia by Skye Moody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Skye Moody (aka Kathy Kahn) originally published "Hillbilly Women" in 1974, then updated primarily the introduction and end note in 2014. The subject and form were a huge undertaking; all but the last chapter are written in the words of individual women living in Southern Appalachia whom Moody visited during her first decade of living and organizing there. Inevitably, there are some absences and some repetitions.

In fact, the author developed the project that became the book based on her own noticing of absence and repetition in the stories she heard. Traveling within the mountains, listening as women told their lives to the writer and activist, Moody
"...began making tape recordings of individuals' life stories with the intention of carrying them to their counterparts across the mountains and hollows. This was before the Internet and satellite television existed. I wanted them to know that they were not alone, and that their stories matched those of thousands of others not so far away struggling to survive under the same spiteful thumb of poverty, prejudice, and exploitation."

Moody shared this context in the book's endnote. I would have appreciated being more aware of this as I read through the stories from the beginning, and I would recommend reading the last couple of pages first.

In the final chapter, titled "Without Anger There Won't Be Any Change," Moody's voice concludes the book, necessarily apart from--and probably also necessarily after--featuring diverse yet entwined voices of Appalachian women from multiple generations, races, religions, relationships, and jobs.
"Every time I read over the stories of these women, I am filled with a sense of failure. I feel somehow I failed to capture their intensity and strength and the emotion with which they recall the cruel experiences of their lives...

I'll never forget the day Myra Watson got indoor plumbing in her house and the pride she felt because she had finally saved up enough money to have it installed. Why did she have to wait 64 years for indoor plumbing?"

Of course the stories include what Moody angrily identifies as "cruel experiences," influenced by natural and unnatural disasters such as business-and-government-made floods and jobless, deadly freezing in unheated homes. They also feature sly humor, pride, generosity, music, discernment, and everyday culture in food, family, and education.

I looked for a couple of years for a book or other document that would show the people, place, history, and social circumstances of this group of Americans who existed mainly in my world as caricatures in movies or figurative language and country song lyrics, with the occasional brief, out-of-date documentary treatment. "Hillbilly Women" is the best I have found, even in its own dated-ness.

Together, the stories, presented through a series of themes (sorrow, creativity, migration, motherhood and mills...) provided important American history that I hadn't learned in my privileged education. I had previously seen "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Norma Rae," and Barbara Kopple's 1976 "Harlan County, USA" documentary film (as well as having read that disingenuous, unfortunately successful more recent book with "Hillbilly" in the title). "Hillbilly Women" filled out some of my minimal knowledge of Appalachian unions, corporation towns, and Cincinnati's Over the Rhine neighborhood as Blue Ridge Mountain refugees told of hillbilly life in their "slum."

If you're interested in reading some stories and voices of mid-20th century Appalachian women, I can recommend this collection.

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