‘Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia’

 

Steven Stoll, Hill & Wang, 410 pages, $30. Appalachia is among the most discussed and written-about geographies in the United States. Onto this saturated terrain steps Steven Stoll’s “Ramp Hollow,” a historian’s look at where Appalachian deprivation comes from. The author, an academic from Fordham University in New York, confronts his subject as you would expect a history professor to do — with meticulous research. But those who associate “academic” with “dry” will be pleasantly surprised; the book’s prose is light and readable. Stoll traces the socioeconomic forces that led to a “hillbilly” being thought of as a backward peasant, unable to adjust his behaviors and attitudes to the realities of the economy. Stoll blisters at the extraction industries of timber and coal, arguing that they take from the land without giving anything back. Development agencies, from the World Bank to the Appalachian Regional Commission, fare little better in Stoll’s estimation, because they cling to the idea that the poor will be saved by “the same thinking that made them poor in the first place.” Although Stoll’s theories can be flawed, the book’s great strength is that it acknowledges something our politics often fails to: that not everyone wants the same things or possesses the same preferences. For many, a better future isn’t about yachts and private jets, but about simpler pursuits: family comfort instead of wealth, a life rooted in a thriving community rather than individual achievement. Or, as Stoll encourages us to consider, maybe they don’t want “success” in the modern economy at all.

NEW YORK TIMES