(A version of this essay originally appeared in Spinetingler e-zine. It answers a number of questions I’ve been asked about my characters.)
I always cringe when I read a novel or see a movie that romanticizes poverty in the southern mountains – the noble people of Appalachia, speaking an arcane dialect, whipping up nifty herbal remedies when a family member falls ill, sitting around a fire in the evenings, strumming their dulcimers and singing 400-year-old folk songs.
Even worse is the notion that all mountain people are dimwitted products of incest and the civilized world would be horrified to learn what really goes on back in the hollows and up on the ridges.
The years I worked in West Virginia as a newspaper reporter taught me that even the poorest residents of the mountains are more or less the same as everybody else, with the same interests and aspirations. They watch TV and know all about the “outside” world. Many have been to war in foreign countries. Few are content to be poor. Although they may love the mountains and feel reluctant to leave home and family to work elsewhere, they don’t revel in poverty and scorn all opportunity. When kids get sick, parents take them to a doctor – if they can find a free clinic or scrape together enough money to pay the bill. They’re more likely to enjoy country music or rock than ballads that were popular when Henry VIII was on the throne. Some are poorly educated, but stupidity is no more prevalent than in any other economic class. I’ve seen no evidence that incest and mental retardation are more common than in the general population. Sadly, drug use is a serious problem in Appalachia, and methamphetamine production provides an income for many who would otherwise be unemployed.
The first time I used southern mountain people in a (never published) novel, years ago, I realized that a lot of people see them through a distorted lens and expect writers to present stereotypes. A critique partner told me I had to find a way to show that “all mountain women speak in high-pitched, whiny voices.” Another critiquer asked, “Why don’t you have them all speaking the mountain dialect, with Old English and Scottish words mixed in?” The same person expressed satisfaction that the antipoverty program on the late 1960s and early 1970s had failed, because if it had succeeded in improving people’s lives economically it would have “destroyed their unique culture” – a culture based in poverty.
Later on, when I decided to set my mystery novels in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where poverty is rampant, I vowed that I would ignore that kind of criticism and try to see the region and its people through an undistorted lens. I can’t ignore the drug addiction, or the depressed economy that has decimated the population by forcing people to move elsewhere in a search for work, or the landscape that’s being ravaged by surface mining. My challenge is to tell a good story that will make readers accept the less than idyllic setting.
I refuse to romanticize the people, and I won’t go the other way and make them all look like idiots. Some of my low-income characters, like Rachel Goddard’s young friend Holly Turner, are smart, honest, and hard-working. Others, like a few of Holly’s relatives, see selling illegal drugs as their ticket to a cushier life. Some of my poor mountain characters have been villains, and others have been heroes. One woman, Lily Barker, claims to have “the sight” – a mountain version of psychic powers – but I leave it up to readers to decide whether her abilities are real or imagined.
I know some readers will always want my mountain people to talk in dialect, sing old English ballads, and tell colorful tales about life in the hills. Maybe I’d have a wider readership if I presented stereotypes. But my characters are what they are, and I would feel I had betrayed them if I depicted them as cartoonish happy savages.
I hope my characters will come alive on the page as individuals, and that readers will appreciate them for who they are.