Reading in Appalachia

stack of books with a flower on top

“Gertie thumbed through one of the books. Many of the poems were familiar as old neighbors who, though moved away and not seen for years, seem neighbors still when seen again. “Look, youngens,” she said, glancing up from “Into the Ward of White-Washed Walls” with the guilty realization that she was wasting time, “you all have been worken hard. Th rain’s kind a slackened, I’d better go up in our patch a timber and hunt me a little hick’ry that’ll do fer saw handles an a good big tough maul, fer we’ll be haven to split some rails pretty soon. While I’m gone you all can do a little studyen till dinnertime. Clytie, you start gitten some poems by heart. Pick out somethen good, an th rest a youens practice readen an spellen.”

She caught the sorrowful, shame-faced look that always came to Cassie’s face at the mention of reading. “All but Cassie and Amos, an they can git a poem by heart. Cassie, they’s a real pretty poem. I got it by heart when I was about yer size. Look through th second reader, Clytie. I don’t think I recollect it all: ‘Once there was a little kitty with paws white as snow—'”

They gathered in a ring around the hearth, heads bowed over books, with Cassie whispering after Clytie about the kitten that frolicked a long time ago.”


Granny learned lots of poems by heart when she was a girl growing up right here in Cherokee County NC in the heart of Appalachia.

I didn’t learn many poems by heart, but I read every last book I could get my hands on as a girl. If I couldn’t find a book to read I’d read the cereal boxes in the cabinet. I still have a voracious appetite for reading.

Pap was a reader to. I used to get him books from the library and he’d read them all in a matter of days and I’d have to go back for more.

While it took the girls a little longer to get started than it did me, they are both avid readers.

I find it humorous and sad that some people think folks in Appalachia are uneducated. To put it in simple terms: public schools on the whole are very good, there’s college accessible to everyone who’s interested and there’s books being read in practically every house.


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  • Reply
    September 9, 2019 at 8:25 pm

    Thank you for sharing these excerpts- so very rich in texture. I remember watching a TV version many years ago, but I’m sure it only scratched the surface of what the book portrays. The scene about the strange car made me stop and look, hold my breath, as if I were there.

  • Reply
    Nicholas Glorioso
    September 8, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    It’s truly sad and disappointing that so-called “intellectuals” actually believe that people who live in North Carolina and adjoining states are little more than “stupid” hillbillies and “dumb” rednecks. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    I’ve lived in other parts of the country–especially throughout the Midwest–and I can absolutely attest that the people in North Carolina and in other parts of Appalachia are on par with–or even surpass–the intelligence of people in other parts of the good ole’ United States of America.

    Remember, not all “intelligence” is measured by years spent in school, and number(s) of college degrees. There is another type of intelligence, known as “innate” intelligence. And the people in Appalachia have more innate intelligence than just about all other parts of the United States.

    “Innate” intelligence is akin to common sense and tacit knowledge, along with the ability to do things that are of real human value–such as being able to survive in the wilderness, live off the land, farm the land, grow gardens, hunt animals, and actually build things, such as houses, barns, and even entire communities.

    I’m a full-fledged North Carolinian, and as far as “book-smart” knowledge goes, I have four (4) College Degrees: two Associates Degrees; one Bachelor of Arts degree; and a Master of Arts degree. But I truly value my innate knowledge and tacit knowledge much more than the four (4) college degrees I earned.

    Being able to work the land, and nurture the land, along with hunting and fishing are skills that the so-called self-anointed “intellectuals” possess . The mere thought of living off the land actually disgusts these people.

    I’m very, very proud to be a full-blooded Appalachian–and if they want to label me a “hillbilly” and a “redneck” I’ll wear those monikers with every ounce of pride in this North Carolinian.

    And, by the way, without fail, I read at least one–and sometimes two–books each and every week of my life, and I’ve been doing so for decades. And I’m now 65 years old so I’ve actually lost count of the thousands of books I’ve read. And, some of the books I read would be so far over the head of the self-anointed “intellectuals” that it would make their arrogant heads spin.

    Thank you for listening to my mini-diatribe.

    • Reply
      Ann Applegarth
      May 30, 2020 at 2:48 pm

      That innate intelligence is what we always call “horse sense” — not everyone is fortunate enough to have any!

  • Reply
    September 8, 2019 at 12:54 am

    James Whitcomb Riley was the poet of choice for my teacher mother to read to her toddler children. I had learned several rather long poems by 3 years old. Little Orphan Annie, The Raggedy Man and The Owl and the Pussy Cat were some of my favorites to say over and over again. I still love those poems.

  • Reply
    Terry Stites
    September 7, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    I couldn’t choose! I have read this book long ago want couldn’t it down til I finished.

  • Reply
    Mary Johnson
    September 7, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    I loved every little portion you put out on The Dollmaker.

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 1:14 pm

    Truly, reading takes you places you’d never think you’d go.

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    The posts on Thursday and Friday caused me to pause and remember some things. We had a neighbor that worried every time a strange car passed. She was sure the people were looking for something to steal.

    The other reminded me of my daughter’s shenanigans.

  • Reply
    Jim Kenninton
    September 7, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Growing up, my Mom was the readingest person I know. My brothers & I were introduced to the library before we could read as Mom would take us with her when she went to check-out or return books. As for memorizing poetry, Mrs. Sallye R. Wilson say to that. I had her for English class in the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. Every eight weeks or so, we had to memorize a poem and then get up and recite it before the whole class. Mom’s slim, grey-covered copy of “101 Famous Poems” was my source for what to learn. 65 years later, I can still recite a little of what I learned, mostly the opening lines… “Under the spreading chestnut tree,” (The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) or “Listen my children and you will hear” (Paul Revere’s Ride, also by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Seems I liked the doing poems, rather than the being poems. Thanks for prompting those memories.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    September 7, 2019 at 11:24 am

    I don’t remember Harold ever bringing home a book when we were in school. And I brought home as many as I could carry. Me and Mama would stay up until late and go thru my lessons. My mama would say “I got my education by helping my youngest boy do his homework.” I didn’t like to read stuff, but Mama did and would tell me what was said. This left out all the gibber-gaber and all that was meaningless to me anyway.

    I was in the eighth grade, and I remember Mrs. Vangorder reading “The Great Stone Face” and I just loved the way she brought the story to life. She read for several days, and had us to take notes on what she read. There would be a test at the end and I got an A +.

    Funny how things like that affect you, but I can remember a family starring out the window at an image carved in stone, out West, and trying to see just who resembled it most. …Ken

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 11:13 am

    I read everything I could when I was a child, even all sides of the cereal box as I ate breakfast. My parents were both readers, and Mama read till the end of her life.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    September 7, 2019 at 10:23 am

    I realize (and teach) that Appalachia is not monolithic) but, I agree with all y’all that the “uneducated hillbilly” was never a body I encountered.

    Reading and curiosity was a quality I saw in nearly all the people I knew growing up. The men and women I worked with at the glass plant in Circleville Ohio were more knowledgeable historians, folklorist and readers than many of the people I’ve worked with at universities. My Dad can pick apart Beowulf or Edgar Allen Poe like nobody’s business and my Mom raised us on Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness.”

    Even in high school, the guys who could care less about school always had a paperback tucked in their back pocket. It was a good country boy named Toby who introduced me to Louis L’Amour. He loaned me a used copy of “Last of the Breed.” And for that, I’ll always be thankful.

    Not to get long winded, but I think this attitude is rooted like all the foul misconceptions about us in the fact Appalachian people rely on themselves, family, and community before turning to institutions. The institutions see no money in that kind of thinking.

    Sorry. That went in a strange direction. Anyway, I’m enjoying this trip through The Dollmaker.”

    (I went to a football game with the boy last night and I’m a little mean this morning. Apparently, I’m too old for late nights!)

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    September 7, 2019 at 10:08 am

    I too am an avid reader. I read at least two books a week. I love biographies and auto-biographies.
    I loved this series and can visualize lots of my kinfolk facing the same hardships these folks faced.
    How I admire their will to make a better life. We are who we are today because of them.

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 9:20 am

    Today’s post is my favorite. It reminds me how hard our ancestors worked and felt guilty for taking a break. I don’t recall either of my parents reading a complete book. I made up for my non book reading brother and sisters who only read what the teacher assigned them. When I stayed inside during recess to read a Nancy Drew book, my teacher told me I was going to be the next Carolyn Keene. I never wrote my own book, just read thousands that were written by others. It would be interesting to know the exact number of books I have read in my lifetime.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    September 7, 2019 at 9:05 am

    I read this book many years ago. I was always an avid reader & I learned to read easily & early–I remember our little elementary library & that the teacher wouldn’t let me have a book because she thought I couldn’t read it. How I wish every other subject had been that easy. As a first grader I was put in the lower reading group (I truly believe because of my appearance–no starched dresses & slips for me and I wore the same clothes all week) . As a second grader, I got lost in a book at the little reading table in the back of the room & didn’t return to the group. The teacher came back & got me and I was in the first group from then on. Anyway, I credit reading to saving my sanity!!

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 8:32 am

    I have really enjoyed your excerpts from The Dollmaker and hope you’ll share more of them. Of course, it would be even better if I had my own copy and could read the entire book! (Hint, hint.)

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 7, 2019 at 8:25 am

    I’m a reader to. I can usually read a book in 2-3 hours. Sadly though, I don’t remember them very long anymore. And now I don’t read week after week. At some point I’ll ease off and read less for awhile.

    My favorite Arnow quote was about the strange car coming. I got tensed up with Gertie, thinking it must mean bad news and wondering where it would stop. Those country gravel roads gave plenty of road noise warning. Your quote from Pap was the crowning touch.

    • Reply
      Wanda Devers
      September 7, 2019 at 9:07 am

      Ron, I know what you mean. I get a lot of my books at Goodwill and have bought one I’d already read several times. A few pages in, I will begin to remember that I have read it but often the plot of it escapes me.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    September 7, 2019 at 7:54 am

    Growing up we had no electricity so that meant no TV to occupy our time and minds so we all became voracious readers. My Mother joined a book club which sent books for her perusal and if they met her standards she could purchase, These books were by Earle Stanley Gardner about a fictional attorney Perry Mason. Mr. Gardner also wrote about a private detective firm of Cool and Lam under his pen name A.A. Fair. We eventually owned an almost complete library of his works which we all consumed as soon as they arrived. I can identify with the earlier residents of Appalachia who read almost anything to break up the hardscrabble life they lived scratching out a living where they grew almost all their food and selling anything they could produce beyond their needs like Hickory smoked hams, Honey and molasses. To the surprise of many ‘Outlanders’ this meant many of the Hill Billies they considered ignorant were intelligent relatively well informed individuals.

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 7:36 am

    I’ll opt out of the give away thanks, I read some but not as much as my Wife, when we first married we lived in town and her favorite thing to do was visit the library and bring home as many books as her arms could tote, her favorite thing to do when she was a little girl was read the encyclopedias, not just cause she’s my Wife but she’s the smartest person I know, nowadays the internet lets her read and study about anything her inquiring mind wants to know, I’d have to say that reading has been more of a past time than it used to be for me, now one of us has to stay close by and see to our Daughters needs, you have to learn to immerse yourself into something or the 4 walls will close in on you.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 7, 2019 at 6:54 am

    Like you Tip, I read all the time but I read slower than you so I don’t go through as many books as you do. I don’t know what I’d do without my books!

  • Reply
    September 7, 2019 at 6:11 am

    i totally enjoyed this series on the dollmaker and would love a copy! i am trying to find the movie to watch again but so far no luck!

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