Review of Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America by Paul Salstrom

Review of Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America by Paul Salstrom

December 02, 2021

 

 

 

My parents moved to West Virginia as farm-sitters for sixty head of cattle just in time for the bitter winter of 1976-77. Many of their friends arrived around the same time, settling into drafty old farmhouses, tipis, yurts, and trailers. One pair of friends tried to heat an unrenovated 19th-century log cabin with a tiny wood stove made of thin metal. Even when they had it glowing red, everything below knee level was rimmed with frost. A neighbor came by from down the hollow to check on them and with one glance at the overworked little stove he said, “You’re going to kill yourselves.” The next day he brought them a 55-gallon drum that he’d welded into a stove robust enough to keep them safely warm through that historic freeze.

I love stories about the wave of idealistic young people who moved to the country during the 70s. They had, as a rule, more energy than money and more book-learning than common sense. In most cases, their innate optimism and some crucial help from their new neighbors carried them through. As a kid lying on the floor beneath the big passive-solar windows of the house my mom designed on a piece of graph paper, paging through the large-format Whole Earth Catalog, I sensed the empowering impulse to take tools into one’s own hands and live closer to the source of things. I could feel in those pages parts of what had drawn my parents into the country. Later, learning about the social brutality that had revealed itself during the Nixon era as fundamental to mainstream society (not, of course, for the first time in American history), I could feel parts of what had pushed them there.

Paul Salstrom’s new book Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America traces the author’s own path to West Virginia and reflects on the aspects of what he refers to as “traditional rural Appalachian culture” that could prove advantageous in a future of climate, energy, and food system breakdown. Salstrom is at his best when recounting his own peripatetic journey through the countercultures of the 60s. We see him getting lippy with his draft board chairman, climbing in Yosemite with Yvon Chouinard, teaching leather-working to evicted sharecroppers in Tennessee, starting a youth center in Philadelphia with civil rights legends Juanita and Wally Nelson, and meditating in the cave of Gary Snyder’s friend Nanao Sasaki. He crosses the country with Bill Coperthwaite, the Johnny Appleseed of yurts. He dabbles in homesteading at the School of Living with Mildred Loomis, the “grandmother of the counterculture” according to Mother Earth News. In the midst of all this, he spends three years in prison for evading the draft and befriends fellow convict Chuck Berry. Yes, that Chuck Berry, who was apparently quite good at chess. It’s an entertaining tale in which Salstrom comes off as a countercultural Forrest Gump finding himself involved in just about every “experimental alternative” to mainstream life.

When Salstrom eventually ends up in Lincoln County, West Virginia, he’s struck by the way the people there trade favors and lend things back and forth. On his first night, a neighbor pulls his friend’s stuck Jeep out of the woods with a horse; the understanding that a return favor is expected, whenever his friend can get around to it, is unspoken but understood. The system of reciprocal “barter and borrow” forms the nuts and bolts of the local economy and helps folks who may be cash-poor get things when they need them. A decade or so later, when Salstrom decides to pursue his PhD in history, his observations about barter and borrow will end up forming the basis of his scholarship of the region’s economic history from the early 19th century through the New Deal. 

The specific stories of non-monetary reciprocity among neighbors are engaging: a midwife who manages a sawmill also grows a garden of food for whoever might need it; a storekeeper accepts crates of eggs and even land titles to pay off accumulated accounts. But the writing is less salubrious when it veers from the specific to the general. The chapter entitled “The Natives,” in which Salstrom undertakes to characterize “the mental world of most Lincoln County natives,” introduces an uncomfortable anthropological gaze into the memoir. He admires the way that people in Lincoln County were accustomed to helping each other out, but the delivery is clumsy. As he applauds their solidarity, Salstrom repeatedly stresses the homogeneity of Lincoln County without specifying in what respects it was a homogenous community. It’s implied that the same sort of unspecified homogeneity characterizes “traditional” Appalachia at large. Many readers, though, will feel that the region would be better served by recognizing its diversity instead. 

Salstrom also hyperextends his emphasis on in-kind exchange. His assertion that miners took so long to unionize because they “were waiting for the coal bosses to reciprocate the favors they did for them” seems exceedingly dubious and is unlikely to go down well in the coalfields. Likewise, his claim that the coal and timber companies’ use of scrip to pay workers’ wages was a positive example of local barter economy disregards the dismal power dynamics at play. As an economic historian, Salstrom can hardly be ignorant of the way company towns enforced indebtedness on their workers and rendered their labor unfree. Where most of us would think of the dire lyrics to Merle Travis’s “Sixteen Tons,” Salstrom’s rose-colored lenses see a local currency and neighborly trading system. 

A central point of the book is to cast Appalachian culture—coal companies aside—as a preexisting exemplar of alternative economics and decentralism. The places where Salstrom locates threats to this culture provide some perplexing moments. He’s dismayed, for example, by Berea College’s mission to prepare its Appalachian students for white-collar careers, a mission he sees as “eroding what was traditional out of Appalachia.” Appalachian communities, though, need engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors just like anyplace else. His dim view of the long-term effects of the New Deal and Great Society likewise seems perfunctory and rooted in his idealization of decentralized economies as opposed to large-scale social programs. In several places, Salstrom comes perilously close to saying that since the admirable sharing economies of rural Appalachia developed among people who were money-poor, those people would be better off staying money-poor.

A shortcoming of the book that took me particularly by surprise is in the way it addresses J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Salstrom writes that if Vance’s message were simply that Appalachian culture is disadvantageous outside of Appalachia, he wouldn’t have a bone to pick with him. According to Salstrom, Appalachian people who move outside of Appalachia are “fish out of water.” This take ends up condoning Vance’s racially essentialist view of Scots-Irish people as a unique genetic reservoir of violence, despair, and helplessness, with the weak caveat that things are actually hunky dory if they stay inside their home turf: “fish evolved to live in water.” I was left crestfallen, shaking my head at a chapter which I’d expected from the title “Why Hillbilly Elegy Isn’t Really About Traditional Appalachia” to be a well-deserved repudiation of Vance.

 In spite of the places where it misses the mark, it’s obvious throughout that Appalachia’s Alternative to Mainstream America is a book rooted in idealism and hope. Professor Salstrom wants to point his readers toward ways of living that could make our communities more resilient in the event of breakdowns in our energy and food systems. His ethos is akin to Rob Hopkins’s Transition Network, which envisions community-based ways to navigate “energy descent” into a future that’s not fully reliant on fossil fuels. Drawing inspiration from preexisting ways of living in difficult circumstances is a worthwhile project. Neighborly mutual aid is and will be a valuable skill whether or not it comes to pass, as Salstrom expects, that “America’s future living conditions will often resemble Appalachia’s living conditions in the 1970s.” But there’s a fine line between valorizing decentralized barter-and-borrow economies and advocating for insulating or stunting regional economies and cultures. The other side of the coin with local mutual aid is that it’s often a stopgap for failings of broad social policy rather than an adequate substitute. 

My parents survived their trial by ice, kept those sixty head of cattle fed, and settled in for a lifetime in the mountains. Their friends stayed warm in the log cabin with that big barrel stove and have since turned the narrow hollow into a beautiful organic farm. In the meantime, successive waves of newcomers have sought the freedom of the hills of West Virginia. We, the children of that first post-60s generation, are in a sense one of those waves. We’ve been building our own cabins, farms, art studios, workshops, and small businesses. We are from Appalachia, and we are also descendants of the countercultural pioneers. The distinctions between us and our neighbors whose families have deeper roots in the region are ever more blurred. As far as being neighbors to each other, those distinctions aren’t particularly important. But the personal histories and cultural influences are. Salstrom’s detailed memories and broad range of experience make his own personal history a valuable record of a time and a place. The book may be an uneven read, but its author’s heartfelt esteem for people finding their way in these mountains we call home is unquestionable, and its spot in the expanding canon of Appalachian back-to-the-land literature is assured.

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Gabriel Rogers was born and raised in Randolph County, West Virginia. He is working on his MFA in creative nonfiction at West Virginia Wesleyan College. You can find an essay by him in Still: The Journal. He lives in Athens, Greece.

 

 

Photo by Ryan Graybill on Unsplash

 



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