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Blood in the Hills: A History of Violence in Appalachia ed. by Bruce E. Stewart (review)
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With the Hatfields and McCoys again back on our screens, this is a timely publication. In fact, the most notorious feudists of Appalachia make only fleeting appearances in this collection of thirteen essays which explores the violent history of the mountain region, real and imagined, from colonial times to the 1930s. The editor, Bruce E. Stewart, has assembled an impressive team, blending youth with experience, and all of the essays add value to the project. Stewart’s introduction—he also contributes a fine essay on moonshining—does its job well. The purpose of the book, he writes, is “to challenge one of the most enduring stereotypes about the region and its inhabitants: the myth of violent Appalachia” (p. ix). Debunking can lead to the articulation of new myths, but that is clearly not Stewart’s purpose. Instead, the essays offer “texture and complexity,” in short, a fresh look at a topic that has stubbornly resisted popular revision. The first three chapters test traditional explanations against the realities of the Revolutionary-era experience in the mountains. Neither isolation nor ethnicity was responsible for the violence that engulfed the state of Franklin during its brief life, the subject of Kevin Barksdale’s essay; rather, bloodshed resulted from the intense political instability of the area enhanced by fierce resistance from Cherokees anxious to prevent further encroachment onto their lands. The power of myth is even more apparent in Kathryn Shively Meier’s investigation into Indian and white violence in the Pennsylvania Wyoming Valley. Meier’s description of borderland violence as being “not random, crazed, or anarchic, but instrumental in nature” could apply equally to the Anglo-Cherokee conflicts described by Tyler Boulware, who subtly delineates the complex generational dynamics of Cherokee society and their effect upon the conduct of border warfare (p. 70).

The question of when Appalachia acquired its violent reputation hovers over the early contributions to Blood in the Hills. In William Gilmore Simms’s Guy Rivers, the first novel of note to be set in the mountains, John Inscoe finds little evidence that the region was perceived as distinctively unruly, the setting being “only incidental to the plot, the characters, and the social realities that inspired both” (p. 115). By contrast, Katherine Ledford’s study of contemporaneous travel narratives uncovers a range of perceptions about violence but some unity in the writers’ belief that the “physical, social, and economic backwardness” of Appalachia may have produced it (p. 133). Violence took many forms, and in the final essay on the ante-bellum period, Durwood Dunn reveals not only the brutality of the slave system in East Tennessee but also the countervailing effect of antislavery consciences which helped mould the complex responses of the area to the sectional struggle. By the 1870s, as Bruce Stewart demonstrates, external images of Appalachian violence had become widespread, propagated especially by northern capitalists and middle-class reformers who had a vested interest in saving the region from its own excesses. The murder of a Mormon missionary in north Georgia in 1879, the subject of Mary Ellen Engel’s essay, and the venomous riot that occurred in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1893, examined by Rand Dotson, provide further evidence of the instrumental nature of mountain violence and of the lack of immunity of Appalachia from the prevailing national, social, cultural, and racial tensions. Exceptionalist advocates will find equally scant comfort in T. R. C. Hutton’s essay on political feuding in Breathitt County, Kentucky, or in Paul Rakes and Kenneth Bailey’s essay on nonstrike violence in the southern West Virginia coalfields. These are exemplary contributions, as indeed are the final two essays which focus on violent incidents in western North Carolina during the interwar period. Both Kevin Young, who recreates the manhunt for Broadus Miller, a black laborer wanted for the murder of a young girl, and Richard Starnes, who investigates the killing in 1933 of Thomas Price, a Welsh-born capitalist struck down by resentful neighbors, probe the relationship between internal and external constructions of Appalachian identity. Starnes’s point that “violence acted as both a component of Appalachianess and created a context in which identity could be redrawn and reinterpreted” provides a fitting conclusion to...

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