A Review of Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North: A Memoir
June 14, 2019 § 1 Comment
By Vivian Wagner
Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North: A Memoir is a book about landscapes—both those defined by rivers and mountains and those shaped by personal and bodily experiences. The book examines in depth the various historical, environmental, and sociological meanings and stereotypes of “Appalachia,” and at the same time it tells several layers of stories about Ferrence’s experiences in that landscape, his struggles with a brain tumor, and his search for a sense of identity and belonging.
As someone who lives in southeastern Ohio, which like western Pennsylvania is marginally Appalachian, I read this book with both a sense of fascination and recognition. I understand what he’s talking about when he says that people often don’t consider where you live as “really” Appalachian, even though it’s been defined as such by the Appalachian Regional Commission, by broader cultural lore, and by the interconnectedness of hills, streams, and seams of coal.
And as someone who grew up amongst the piñon pines and junipers of California’s southern Sierra Nevada Mountains and now lives in a small Appalachian village, trying to grow vegetables in her yard’s hard-pack clay and exploring maple, oak, and sycamore forests, I also viscerally understand both Ferrence’s sense of continual exile and his notion that the landscapes in which we live reflect and embody the landscapes we carry within.
This is a book that’s largely about identity—both regional identity and Ferrence’s own sense of self. As he says in the book’s preface, “I began this book with an idea, based on casual observation, that the functional realities of rural communities located along the entire chain of the ancient Appalachian Mountains carry certain similarities.” He’s looking for a sense of shared identity between and among mountain communities, but in the course of this quest he discovers a broader understanding of planetary interconnectedness.
Ferrence’s identity, he tells us, wasn’t always Appalachian, and the book traces the journey he takes toward seeing himself as such: “The writing of this project is at once the continuation of my own self-discovery as Appalachian, a reassertion of the validity of western Pennsylvanian experience as more than Pittsburgh steelwork, and a further investigation into how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written.” He seeks, in other words, both a way to describe the identity of the region and to describe his own identity—always with the understanding that those two identities are indelibly intertwined.
He’s not arguing anything in particular about Appalachia or about himself. As he says, “this is a book without an argument at its core.” Rather than seeking to debunk Appalachian stereotypes or create new identity markers, he’s interested in exploring the continuities in and between landscapes, the way one region is connected to another, how one side of the mountains is linked to the other. He’s interested in the way streams and rivers flow together, and the way he, himself, is part of this sense of continuous and interrelated identity.
Drawing lines around Appalachia, he argues, has historically meant the region’s been marked as useful only as a site of resource extraction, and the poverty within those lines is seen as an almost inevitable consequence of this extraction. As he says, the defining line around Appalachia “sets up conditions that let people outside the line do things inside the line that make them richer and Appalachia poorer. That is, indeed, the official origin of the region’s designation, and the contemporary dynamic that works to maintain the poverty within. Origin stories are hard to shake, so once Appalachia was defined as poor, then poor it must continue to be.”
Defining Appalachia as a resource-rich region with poor people, in other words, marks the region as other. Ferrence wants to de-otherize Appalachia, to reconnect it to the rest of the continent and to the earth, so that we can develop a more holistic and truer sense of the place, its people, and its relationship with the rest of the planet.
In addition to exploring the topographical, environmental, and sociological meanings of northern Appalachia, Ferrence explores the meaning and substance of his own body, via his experience with a brain tumor. The two narratives—the attempt to reconceive of Appalachia and to make sense of his experience in his own body—might seem at first to be disconnected, but they’re related in the sense that they’re both studies in materiality and physicality. They’re also both about destruction and erosion, and about the possibility and impossibility of reclamation and renewal.
Just as the strip-mined landscape of western Pennsylvania can never be returned to precisely what it was before, so his own body and mind will be forever marked by the brain tumor, which remains in his skull, irradiated and dormant but nonetheless there. Yet, both for the landscape and for his own body, Ferrence has a sense of hope. As he says near the book’s end, which meanders, ultimately, toward Prince Edward Island and the far northern reaches of Appalachia, “real recovery . . . requires that you decide what you really are at core.” What he discovers, at his core, is a dogged, persistent sense of hope and possibility: “I turn willfully toward the old growth, toward a desire to think about what these mountains are and to restore, preserve, and renew.”
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.