Book review: Hill Women– velvet stones of Appalachia
Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains (2020), a memoir by Cassie Chambers. After rising from poverty in Kentucky to earn two Ivy League degrees, an Appalachian lawyer pays tribute to the strong hill women who raised and inspired her. She later returns to Kentucky to do legal work with domestic violence survivors.
The term “Appalachia” refers to the cultural area along the Appalachian Mountains in the eastern United States from western New York state to northern Alabama and Mississippi. People of Appalachian culture have a strong connection to land and loyalty to place. Family business is kept inside the circle—not aired in public.
Chamber’s memoir transported me back to the holler where my paternal grandparents lived, loved, and farmed in Scioto County. Mamaw Hila loved her flowers, vegetable garden, and animals. Her life was dedicated to cooking for family, friends, and neighbors. Papaw Russ liked big cars, pickled pig’s feet, and the daily newspaper. He delighted in setting on the porch and watching cars go in and out of the holler after retiring from the Steel Mill in New Boston. Salt of the earth Appalachians. They fiercely and tenderly treasured their plot of land; the apple tree on the hill, and nature’s bounty. Eggs gathered, goats milked, and pigs butchered. Family, faith, and fortitude.
Chamber’s wrote the following excerpt: “This holler feels like home, and this house feels like family. There are women’s stories here, stories of resilience, love, and strength. This community knows them well, but their echo hasn’t reached far enough into the outside world. Instead, these tales have ricocheted within the mountains, growing more faint with time. I want to tell these stories because they matter, because I’m afraid that they will be forgotten, because they have the power to make this community visible. As I stop my vehicle and walk toward the house, the memories wash over me like the sunlight on the mountain hills.”
Chambers spends her youth with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the hills of Owsley County, among coal miners and tobacco farmers. Cassie’s mother became the first woman in the family to graduate from college. And encourages her daughter. The author leaves her family and friends to pursue an education only to be drawn back to what she knows and loves.
At the end of her book, Chambers shares: “The day after I finished this book, my mother died. That day, she was rear-ended by a semi-truck on the interstate. It has been almost a week since she passed, and it doesn’t seem real. I can’t imagine how life can keep on moving without her…We found a bluegrass band to play mountain hymns at her church service, and we invited everyone to join us afterwards for food…Tomorrow we will bury her on a hill near Berea College, looking out at the rising Appalachians. I miss her already…I feel like my foundation has suddenly and unexpectedly disintegrated into dust.”
Shirley Martin-Cunningham, also raised in Appalachia, embodied the characteristics of a strong rural woman. She brought home the bacon and fried it up in the pan. As her daughter, I found her likeness in the resilient females in Cassie’s memoir.
I enjoyed getting to know Cassie, her mother Wilma, her Aunt Ruth and her Granny throughout the pages. A tale of survival, strength, and community. Her book is a love letter to the women who raised her. Hill Womenby Cassie Chambers. Pick it up. You’re going to relish the reading.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Scioto County. Contact her at [email protected]