Valerie's Reviews > Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories

Out of the Mountains by Meredith Willis
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Jan 24, 2011

it was amazing

Some years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing a short story collection by Meredith Sue Willis. In the Mountains of America provided, as the jacket copy promised, “a view of Appalachian life full of unexpected revelations.” Some of those coal-camp gossips and lonely men of the hollers appear in her latest collection, Out of the Mountains: Appalachian Stories, and indeed some of the stories from that 1994 collection have migrated into this one. But like those character and those stories, this new book finds Appalachian people coming out of the past, out of the stereotypes, out of the close family ties and the constricting small towns to weave into the loose and multifarious fabric of America-at-large.

“This is the story,” we begin in the story “Pie Knob,” an opening as traditional and as powerful as Beowulf or those Appalachian ballads of sin and retribution. This is a gathering of listeners, a community speaking with a common voice, people who know the stories and pass them around, generally adding some pointed observations:

“People in Cooper County respect education, but we’re probably more interested in whether or not you’re a good person. Merlee says that’s fine, how could you not agree with that, but she says she could have been a good person and never become a nurse if not for the Rosens. I needed all the help I could get, she says.
We say, No, you didn’t, Merlee, you did it all by yourself. Janice, of course, adds, with the love of Jesus.
No, says Merlee, a lot of it was the Rosens.”
Pie Knob

Characters move in and out of these linked stories – the Savages, the Critchfields. I was pleased to re-encounter the religion-tormented teenager of “The Little Harlots” returning as a different kind of preacher in “Scandalous Roy Critchfield.”

Most of all, Merlee Savage grows through this collection, taking the stereotype of the uneducated, beaten-down mountain woman and turning it on its head. Her marriage to C.T. Savage who “liked to be footloose and fancy free, which often meant job-free and away from home” has brought her to the anticipated end, stuck in a trailer with the babies … but like a rock climber in a tough spot, she flings out her raw-boned limbs and finds a new purchase-point. In “Pie Knob” she begins her emancipation to “Merlee Savage, Registered Nurse” when she takes on the task of caring for a professor’s wife suffering through breast cancer treatments. She is tempted more than once, by a pretty necklace, by the professor himself – indeed, she says that she “developed a crush on them both.” But she returns the necklace and passes through the fire of sexual temptation to be rewarded with the wherewithal to finish school. She returns in “On the Road with C.T. Savage” to stand by her man in his last days, providing him with this final loving benediction, “Goddamn you, C.T. Savage.”

The tropes of Appalachian fiction – God-fearing piety, homecomings to funerals, that good woman standing by her bad man – are picked up, examined, and put back with care – usually upside down. Nowhere is this more evident that in “Big Boss Is Back,” where a woman asks to have her breasts removed because they trouble her husband, who has returned. Big Boss is, however, dead – but his legacy of domineering and browbeating lives on, until Frankie finds a way to tame his demanding spirit.

But these people of the mountains are more firmly knit into American life than their grandparents, pulled into the mainstream by television and fast food and interstate highways. College takes them away and sends them back, as does war. And the mainstream finds its way into the hills, for good or ill – whether in the form of an ambitious pornographer recruiting street kids for an interracial epic, or of a young woman who becomes more a part of New York City’s Jewish community than the members of that community themselves.

Meredith Sue Willis has made a name as a teacher and writer about teaching, as a writer of young adult fiction and novels for adults. In this collection she stakes out the high ground, opening with a tale that interweaves the lives of anarchist Emma Goldman as she passes through the mountains on her way to prison, painter Gustav Klimt, and her own grandmother standing fast in the raw highlands of Bold Camp. The people of Appalachia, she reminds us, were the restless souls who made their way into the mountains, and whether they stay or move on, their spirits are not tied down.



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Valerie Meredith Sue Willis has made a name as a teacher and writer about teaching, and as a writer of young adult fiction and novels for adults. In this new short story collection,she returns to a focus on the people of Appalachia, the inheritors of restless souls who made their way into the mountains, to dig in or move on.
The tropes of Appalachian fiction – God-fearing piety, homecomings, that good woman standing by her bad man – are re-examined with a sharp eye, and sometimes taken apart with a sharper blade.
These people are of the mountains but also, as the title notes, out of them--more firmly knit into American life than their grandparents, pulled into the mainstream by television and fast food and interstate highways. College takes them away and sends them back, as does war. And the mainstream finds its way into the hills, for good or ill.
This is a fine new collection of stories old and new, written with grace and humor and a deep understanding of Appalachia.


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