Friday, November 03, 2017

'Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia' helps us understand roots of the region's problems

 Some pop culture pundits have complained that the nation is too preoccupied with Appalachia. Urban liberals may be exasperated by what they feel is an increasingly-Republican population that votes against its own interests. But the region's transformation into a Republican stronghold is worth studying, and the problems it faces--like the opioid epidemic--can't simply be quarantined and written off, because they affect the rest of the country.

"We should be thankful, then, for what Steven Stoll, a historian at Fordham University, has delivered in his new book Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (Hill and Wang) — not just another account of Appalachia’s current plight, but a journey deeper in time to help us understand how the region came to be the way it is. For while much has been written about the region of late, the historical roots of its troubles have received relatively little recent scrutiny," Alec MacGillis writes for ProPublica. MacGillis, who wrote The Cynic, a polemical biography of Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, says Stoll "has set out to tell the story of how the people of a sprawling region of our country — one of its most physically captivating and ecologically bountiful — went from enjoying a modest but self-sufficient existence as small-scale agrarians for much of the 18th and 19th centuries to a dreary dependency on the indulgence of coal barons or the alms of the government."

“Whenever we see hunger and deprivation among rural people, we need to ask a simple question: What went on just before the crisis that might have caused it?" he writes. "Seeing the world without the past would be like visiting a city after a devastating hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in ruins."

UPDATE, Nov. 21: "His book is a powerful and outrage-making if somewhat academic analysis of the forces that have made West Virginia one of the sorriest places — statistically, at any rate — to live in America," Dwight Garner writes in a review for The New York Times. "His book is not especially warm to the touch. But as economic history it is gravid and well made."

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