- My Appalachia: A Memoir
The Appalachian Writers Association gave Sydney Farr the 2004 award for the writer who contributed most to the region and its people. For years she edited Appalachian Heritage, the major literary journal devoted to the region. Well-known for her Appalachian recipes and cookbooks, including More Than Moonshine: Appalachian Recipes and Recollections, reprinted six times since its publication in 1983, she has also written an annotated bibliography on Appalachian women, a poetry collection, and two books on spiritualism. She wrote My Appalachia because she believes it is “our duty to pass along family history” (1).
As with any memoir, the book passes along much more than family history. Farr describes details of old ways of farming and gathering that will be new to many readers. Equally important, this record of her life illustrates social conditions common to women in rural Appalachia during the mid- and late twentieth century. Approximately two-thirds of her book is devoted to her girlhood and early married life in southeastern Kentucky. The last third focuses on her adult life in Berea, Kentucky.
Though the first part of the book seems disorganized, it offers an informative discussion of the customs and beliefs that were a part of Farr's childhood. She describes superstitions, folk remedies, riddles, children's [End Page 118] games, and ghost sightings. Not surprisingly, given her earlier books, she writes about food preservation and preparation. Poor as they were, Farr says, she never went to bed hungry. Her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles could grow, hunt, and gather enough for their family to eat. A brief section entitled “Sulfured Apples and Northern Lights” juxtaposes knowledge about food preservation with ignorance about an unusual natural phenomenon for her part of the world. After describing a day of watching her parents use sulfur to preserve apples, she describes that evening: “Dad awoke us, saying, ‘Hurry! Come out on the porch.’ We tumbled out onto the front porch. . . . Lights—first yellow, then blue and red—were moving over the hills. Dad said it might be the end of the world, and Mama leaned against the porch railing, praying out loud”(14).
This section of the book contrasts her family's local knowledge with its ignorance of distant events and ideas. Her people were experts in their place. They kept bees, butchered hogs, made molasses, and distilled whiskey. They lived in a richer natural world than most of us do today because they were not just guests on the rural landscape. They observed minute details of the natural world around them because details were significant to their survival, as well as their entertainment. On the other hand, they knew relatively little beyond their locale; they had radio, but little money for travel. Farr quotes her mother as chiding her for reading, saying, “those old books are full of lies and will drive you crazy” (49). This common sentiment made them more vulnerable than they might otherwise have been.
Farr's account of her teenage years is all too familiar in poor rural areas. Her parents took her out of school when she was an eleven-year-old seventh-grader to help her mother, who had heart trouble. She got married at age fifteen, not uncommonly young for that time. Despite emotional and physical abuse, she stayed with her first husband for years because she had little education and few job opportunities. Her memoir describes her struggle to get a high school degree in the face of her husband's opposition and her struggle to get a college degree after her divorce, when she had two boys to raise.
Farr's account of her life in Berea tells about deaths in her family, her travels, her writing, and her second marriage. One shortcoming of this section is its presentation of the problematic relationship with her second husband. Though she doesn't blame him for the failure of their marriage, she may encourage readers to see him as the problem by omitting serious introspection about herself and by focusing on his bisexuality and small cruelties...