Get to know hardscrabble Appalachia with these 5 must-read books set in West Virginia.
1. Lee Maynard’s Crum trilogy
“In Crum, a gritty coal town on the West Virginia-Kentucky border, the boys fight, swear, chase and sometimes catch girls. The adults are cramped in and clueless, hemmed in by the mountains. The weight of wonder, dejection, and even possibility loom over this tiny, suffocating town. This story is the tale of Jesse Stone, who doesn’t know where he’s going, but knows he is leaving, and whose rebellion against the people and the place of his childhood allows him to reject the comfort and familiarity of his home in search of his place in a larger world.”
2. In An Empty Room: A Novel by Stephen Spotte
“When a Marine fireteam searches an isolated Vietnamese village believed to be a supply depot for the Viet Cong an IED explodes, leaving only one survivor of the five-man unit. But who is he: Bunny, Hillbilly, Poke, Injun, or “the LT”? Because he is horribly burned, disfigured, and unable to speak, the military doctors don’t know, but the people back home in a coal mining camp in southern West Virginia think they know. Most unsettling of all the survivor himself isn’t certain who he is.
“Spanning the landscape from Vietnam’s warn-torn jungles to hardscrabble Appalachia, In An Empty Room is a gripping examination of time, memory, consciousness, and selfhood and suggests unanticipated conclusions about the nature of human identity.”
3. Snakehunter by Chuck Kinder
“Snakehunter is an excellent novel about a West Virginia childhood. Kinder has, to begin with, a good sense of his region: he has rested his story on the firmest possible bases, namely character and place. His dialogue, particularly that of his female characters, is first rate…. One would like to secure for this excellently crafted book all the readers one can.”—Larry McMurty, The Washington Post
4. The Silver Ghost by Chuck Kinder
“The Silver Ghost is a wonderful novel of coming of age in America—letter perfect in its evocation of an almost mythical time, and powerfully affecting in its portrait of its hero. In a dazzlingly shifting series of set-pieces, flashbacks, and reveries, Chuck Kinder cuts back and forth from caper to sentiment to myth, from self-pity to self-mockery. With deft comic sense, a complex and winning hero, and a supporting cast of vividly realized characters, Kinder writes about Jimbo Stark with the same mixture of fond memory and relief that it’s over that we all have toward that time when we, too, were perfectly seventeen; he makes The Silver Ghost one of the very best—and most sensationally written—novels of adolescence.”
5. The Last Mountain Dancer by Chuck Kinder
“On sabbatical from his professorship at the University of Pittsburgh, native West Virginian Chuck Kinder (portrayed as Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and played by Michael Douglas in the film) makes a midlife pilgrimage to his homeland to re-imagine and reconnect with that fabled, fantastic country. Confronting the regrets and heartaches of his past, present, and future, Kinder seeks solace in the funny and raunchy family stories, lies, legends, and history that reside in West Virginia’s haunted hills and the hollows of his memory. But more than anything, Kinder wants to live it up hillbilly style. Immersing himself among the lives of mountaineer characters, both the quick and the dead, the bad-boy author bears holy witness to the triumphs and misdeeds of the loafers and misfits, winos and oddball characters of his homeland. Readers will be astonished by tales of bloody mine wars, outlaws on the run, roadhouse romance, barroom brawlers, beer-joint ballerinas, and a man who calls himself the last mountain dancer. With mothmen, moonshiners, and family feudists, it’s Planet West Virginia. Chuck Kinder’s wild-ride rediscovery of his West Virginian roots is sure to quicken all of our hillbilly hearts.”