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Nonfiction November Review: Hill Women by Cassie Chambers

My Interest

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A few miles down the road at the Adams County, Ohio, line, is the start of Appalachia. I did not grow up here, but landed here through a series of events related to trying to rent a house with 4 cats! Plus, my mother retired here in the same neighborhood with my brother’s in-laws. I live surrounded by Appalachia or people who grew up there. In my former job, in Louisville, I worked with staff, lawyers, and librarians who grew up in Eastern Kentucky and did not view it as “making it out” in the way many outsiders do. Some had had help from  Berea or Alice Lloyd College. Others had National Merit Scholarships or income-based free rides to state colleges. They were not ashamed of these roots–nor should they be. Unless you are from there or are very close to someone who is, it can see like the back side of nowhere. In many ways, it is. But in all the ways that matter, that view is wrong. An often staggering work ethic, family and community loyalty, preservation of historic ways of working, of cooking, of surviving, and of speaking are all part of it.

The Story

Cassie Chambers was born while her parents were students at one of America’s few remaining “work-study” colleges, Berea College in Kentucky. They came from Eastern Kentucky [historically it was Western Virginia] where there are coal mountains, the farms that gave definition to the overused word “hardscrabble” and a lot of “outdoors.” Moonshine comes to mind to those not from there (as well as to those who are but with a different view). It’s soup beans, cornbread and home canned vegetables for many meals, it is summers working tobacco, and butchering a hog in the fall. Cassie’s mother grew up in exactly that life with hardworking, but to the rest of America “uneducated” parents in Owsley County. This was the type place that introduced Jack and Bobby Kennedy to the meaning of “poverty.”

Orlando and Wilma Chambers wanted more for their only child. While Cassie went thru the public schools in Berea and her father rose to have a PhD in Agricultural Economics, even they did not truly envision the height to which their daughter would climb. Like the future Queen of the Netherlands, (attended the branch in China) like two of Lord Mountbatten’s grandchildren (attended the UK branch), like the heir to the former Greek throne and many others, Cassie got accepted to the United World College of the U.S.A.–one of the schools that, like Outward Bound, grew out of Salem and Gordonstoun–the schools Prince Philip attended. Princes Charles, Andrew, and Edward and host of other semi-royals attended Gordonstoun, too.

DJI_0421-HDRPhoto: Dan Rose [if this is incorrect please I will be happy to correct it]

United World College U.S.A. in New Mexico

The name says it all–United World College. Cassie landed in this rarefied atmosphere for the two year stint that sets up students regardless of income from all over the world and prepares them for and connects them with the world’s most competitive colleges–or as close as possible to them. I once went on a job interview to a small college in Pennsylvania. My student driver was shocked that I’d  heard of this school–his Alma Mater. His mother sold vegetables in a Kenyan market. It takes you places just like Berea College took her parents places–only even father. Cassie stuck it out and “made it.” Better yet, she decided home had a lot to give her as well and now helps all sorts of women there.

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Map of Kentucky showing Owsley County

The real stars of this book though are her Aunt Ruth and her Granny. These women worked harder than the hardest working men all their lives. The farmed tobacco. While the world looks down on that now the truth is there are few crops worldwide that have ever had the income potential for small farmers in the USA or in Malawi or other nations that burly tobacco has. These women, who for a variety of reasons, didn’t finish elementary or high school, coped with life in the way the matriarchs of history have always done. They just got up and did it. They shared what they had. They went without, but they got on with it.

They managed to convince Wilma, Cassie’s mother, to graduate from high school, and to go on get her degree. [Eventually Aunt Ruth got a GED–in almost record time, too.] Unlike in Hillbilly Elegy (the dysfunctional family portrait of the region) the men in Cassie’s family worked. They worked that farm. They worked later at other types of jobs. The provided for their family. The, like many in the region even today, would not accept handouts or charity. Their pride was everything.

Perhaps my favorite story was when she asks her Aunt Ruth about the word “hillbilly.” “I suppose so,” [or similar–I had the audio version] she says when Cassie asks if she is one. It is acknowledged that is ok for someone from there to use it. “Redneck” is one term they do not like. There are people all around my area who feel the same way. It can be a term of respect in its way; most often it is a racial slur. Twenty years ago, I would never have looked at the semantics of this. Today, it seems right to stop saying that word. I am Scotch-Irish, just like Cassie’s family. That group came to the Midwest through Virginia. Mine took a detour to Australia, but it is still the same group of people from whom I descend. My family just moved a lot faster.

My Thoughts

Cassie made me very angry when she dared to apply today’s woke view of older man/younger women relationships. Yes, TODAY, it would not happen for a 15 year old to date a man 32. But in that time he was well-known in the community, was a very hard worker, was not violent and she had left school and was ready to do what most young women did then–marry and have children. Cassie’s shrillness on this was unnecessary. Her grandfather was a good man, a good husband and a good provider. Her grandmother did not appear to have regrets. So leave it be.

I also skipped past the parts on Trump being elected. I’m not a supporter of his, but this week I could not handle any more moaning about him. The book was written not long after his election. This week he appears to have lost his bid for re-election.

She made me proud, too. She took her boyfriend home to have dinner with the family. It wasn’t easy–she was college girl at one of the world’s leading colleges. Dinner in a trailer isn’t what is done there. I found her embarrassment at her relatives manners and even, in other scenes of that era of her parents’ ways to be typical of her age. I was happy that she could reflect on it and be glad she did it. Something in her told her she needed their blessing. Thank goodness, too.

Otherwise, I quite admired her for her grit and determination. Academically she went form an average high school in a peripherally below-average education state to Universities that regularly deny entry to the graduates of Choate, Groton, Eton, and Harrow–the schools that regularly create Presidents and Prime Ministers.

I admire, too, the passion she brings to her work helping poor women. She does not talk down to them–she understands them. She exposes the Kentucky court system for what it is. The laws are stacked against them in family court, especially. In time, perhaps letting in light on that rot, will give rise to a thorough cleaning of the system. I hope so.

Today Cassie is happily married with a son, lives in Louisville. She is active in politics and has taught in the law school at the University of Louisville. She seems like someone I would have liked to work for in a law firm.

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A final note. Only a publishing intern straight Manhattan (and I don’t mean Kansas) would compare this story with Educated. Let’s remember that Cassie grew up in a town (Berea), with two educated parents, attended public schools, went to the doctor, and had normal experiences. In no way does that compare to Educated. Even her mother’s story still centers on public school, a doctor’s help, and a college education. Someone made a silly marketing decision with that choice.

Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers.

My friend Susan at Girls In White Dresses offers a more conservative take on the book here.

6 thoughts on “Nonfiction November Review: Hill Women by Cassie Chambers

  1. Sounds very interesting and nuanced and perhaps good to read alongside Hillbilly Elegy (I haven’t read either yet, I seem to be concentrating on different populations in the UK at the moment).

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