Last updated on January 1, 2020
Recently, I have become more interested in the Appalachia region in the Southern United States. What many of us have come to know as “coal country” is a region with a long story, often underrepresented in discussions about poverty and greed in America. The people of this region are sometimes the butt of jokes with images of “backwoods hillbillies” from the movie ‘Deliverance’ coming to mind. However, the true story of Appalachia and in particular the Cumberland region in Kentucky is an American tragedy with residual effects that continue to this day. The late Henry M. Caudill (1922-1990) looked into the lives of the miners and the region that have called home. And what he reveals in this book is sure to open the eyes to many and confirm for others, beliefs they have long held about coal country.
Caudill begins by revisiting Lyndon Johnson’s famous visit to the Paintsville, Kentucky in April, 1964. The visit was used to support Johnson’s “war on poverty” in America. More than fifty-five years later, poverty still exist and in many parts of Appalachia, there are no jobs, doctors and sources of hope for its people. They do the best they can with what they have. The sad truth is that for decades, they have been taken advantage of, ignored and forgotten. The story of the Cumberlands is a textbook example of profits over people and is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Before reading this book, it is necessary to abandon any pre-conceived notions about Appalachia. You have to approach the material with an open mind free from any bias about “mountain people” or any other term used to describe the people of the Cumberlands. Caudill takes us back in time to the original settlers in North America and traces their path from the coastal cities to the Appalachian mountains. It is a good lesson in history and will help readers understand how and why the region came into existence. Undoubtedly life was rough, far rougher than in big cities but the people of this region are accustomed to it. In fact, as I read through the book, I had to marvel at how they adapted to the rigidness of life in the mountains. To survive there required true grit and an iron will. That is all is on display here and the author does not sugar coat anything. The descriptions of mountain life are graphic and some readers might recoil at some sections.
As to be expected, coal enters the story and it is at this point that the region is transformed completely and the story develops its tragic course. The arrival of the coal companies and other business to the region offer at first the possibility of prosperity for the people of the Cumberlands. But as we learn through Caudill’s words, there was much to be seen that was carefully hidden from the people, a majority of whom lacked basic literacy skills. I simply cannot find the words to describe the shock that I felt as I learned about the level of manipulation by businesses as they reaped enormous profits at the expense of the common folk. I am certain that you too will shake your head in disgust at the actions of corporations in the Cumberlands. And sadly, this was just one of a long list of revelations about the reality of life in Appalachia.
Mining is dangerous and dirty business, and it is not long before automation enters the story. For the miners of Appalachia, it proved to be a death kiss and caused the demise of coal, a fuel which has been replaced in many parts of America by cleaner and more efficient sources. The integration of automated technology and decline of coal combine to form the book. During the 2016 United States Presidential election, Donald Trump promised to “bring coal back”. His words were promising for the legions of miners hoping to be put back to work to earn for their families. But there was much about coal that Trump did not say and the truth about its demise can be found in this book, directly from the Cumberlands. And while there are plenty of articles online today regarding coal, the words here predate many of them by several decades. The decline of coal is a story that the locals know all too well but for many of them, there is little semblance of a way out of the gripping poverty that can be found all around them.
The decline of coal, flight of professional young men and women and the emergence of clean sources of power, permanently changed the lives of those in the Cumberlands and Appalachia. There would be no return to the days of the past and moving forward, the future was uncertain. Today the future is still uncertain for those in Appalachia. At the time Caudill wrote this book, he did not have the availability of social media or the internet. What he saw and experienced was unknown to many Americans. Appalachia was seen as a hidden region full of backwards people who had no use for outsiders. The reality is quite different and as Caudill shows, it is a complicated place created by exploitation yet sustained by government assistance. It is also paradox in a country that can spend billions in foreign aid but find itself either unwilling or unable to help its own citizens.
I had always wondered why Appalachia developed the way that it did. I found the answers to my questions are far more in this deeply moving account by Henry Caudill. If there is anything I could change about the book, I would have included an index and/or list of references. Dates and events can be cross-referenced without question but an index would have given the book even more of an authentic feel. Nonetheless, it is presented as an autobiography and Caudill was highly familiar with the region having traveled there himself. He also discloses that he has been there to visit family. Having finished the book, I have a new understanding of the miners and their plight. And as I sit comfortably in my home in New York City, I remind myself that the struggle to survive for people throughout Appalachia continues. Time will tell if there is indeed a brighter day for them. It is said that the past is prologue. This book should be read prior to any discussion regarding Appalachia and the issue of coal. Many years have passed since it was published but the information contained within remains relevant.