Unlike many other minority groups, the people of the Southern Appalachian region have had no Martin Luther King Jr., no Cesar Chavez, no Vine Deloria, no powerful advocate from and of their own culture to galvanize them into concerted action. There have been no lightning rods, no human banners to rally around, and there may never be in this region where collective action on a region wide scale is a foreign as the use of hummingbirds for plow stock.
In recent memory, the closest the region has come to having a spokesman with national visibility, impeccable cultural credentials and a strong social conscience is Harry Caudill, whose books like "Night Comes to the Cumberlands" have given a clear, passionate, yet well-reasoned view of the underbelly of the region's problems.
In this slim, unpretentious-looking volume, Caudill, who practiced law for 28 years in his home town of Whitesburg, Ky., has gathered together in 12 chapters about 30 stories, all told to him as gospel truth during a lifetime of conversations with clients and friends. At the first glance, the pages seem peopled by a rogue's gallery of mountain moonshiners, murderers, thieves, bigamists and other ignorant, disreputable "Deliverance" types who, if taken as an indication of an Appalachian personality, mostly reinforce a stereotype that many from the region, if not simply lamenting, have been trying for decades to counteract and disprove.
But Caudill knows what he's doing. The fact that these stories have been singled out from the thousands he must have heard demands a closer look.
Three of the best stories in the book are centered on coal -- the predominant industry in Eastern Kentucky. In one, Sam Hawkins, a black miner who was responsible for getting a high school built and staffed for the black children of the area, and who managed somehow to send his daughter to college in the depths of the Depression when he was lucky to make $2 worth of company scrip (redeemable only at the company store) for 10 hours of work underground, unfolds an amlost unbelievable tale one day in Caudill's office. The roof of Section 4B Right of the Elk Horn Coal Co.'s. No. 3 mine was about to collapse. Not wanting to lose the coal, the white operators offered Sam the opportunity to work alone, all night and the next day, for 31 cents a ton in cash, not scrip, loading as many coal cars as he could by hand before the roof came down. Broke, and knowing that his daughter was going to have to leave college if he couldn't send her $10, Sam loaded a string of cars and pushed them to safety just as the shaft collapsed.
In another, Francesca Monjiardo, one of many Italians recruited by U.S. Steel to work in its mines (the first several years' worth of wages going to the company to repay it for the expenses involved in transporting them from Italy to Kentucky) innocently runs afoul of Washington's bureaucracy, and in total frustration and helplessness, offers himself up for a 10-year jail term.
The third is set in Harlan during the now-famous days when Sheriff J.H. Blair, his deputies, and gun thugs and spies hired by the coal operators are massed against John L. Lewis and the miners sympathetic to the fledgling United Mine Workers. Thirty five years later, a family reveals to Caudill the untold story behind the elimination of one of the most odious, sadistic and evil thugs ever to plague the coal camps.
Another group of stories has been passed down through the years from "settlement days" -- those years in the late 1700s when the first whites were moving into what were then Indian lands. Lenville Whitaker, for example, tells Caudill how his great-great-grandmother singlehandedly wiped out the mountain lions that were terrorizing their little hardscrabble farm. In a section that made me laugh out loud, Caudill relates how, as a boy in 1940, he was given a demonstration by an old halfbreed named Choctaw of the piercing, shrieking war whoop that terrified his ancestors. "The sound left me thoroughly impressed . . . On a hillside pasture cows bawled, and at a house a hundred yards away a couple of hounds howled in sympathy and wonderment. Their owner threw a rock at them and ordered them to shut up. We heard him grumbling with much profanity that he had never heard 'such a God damned racket' in his life."
Here, too, are stories from Civil War days, some of them achingly tragic; and, yes, stories of moonshiners (who shipped much of their output to Chicago during Prohibition) and scoundrels (Fess Whitaker, the Appalachian Huey Long, who bought black votes with $5 checks that invariably bounced) and murderers like Bad John Wright, who once saved the life of his friend Jesse James. He also wiped out the Klan in his community when it harassed one of his women. As a survivor told Caudill later, "We made the mistake of whipping one of Bad John's lewd women and he damn' near killed every one of us because of it. I jumped over the fence and tried to run but my robe got tangled up in some briars and he caught me. That robe had five buckshot holes in it."
Caudill has a tendency to overwrite. Adjectives sometimes pile in upon awkward adjectives ("His pale-faced and tight-lipped wife watched him die"), but the stories are so detailed -- filled with place names and dates and compass headings -- that they are completely credible. And they have been so meticulously and painstakingly polished that they shine.
Those who may be tempted to accuse Caudill of glorifying Appalachian people best left forgotten will be missing several important points. The men and women in these stories do not represent or symbolize the Appalachian personality per se. Every culture and every community has parallel tales. More importantly, they celebrate people who have a magnetism, a tenacity, a personal vision, an independence and a self-sufficiency that elude most of us today. It is almost as though they represent traits and styles of action that are being bred out of the race.
Granted, things are more complex now. Problems are not simply black or white. Villains are more cleverly disguised. When we fight back, we often find ourselves in the same situation as those members of the audience in the final story in this book who get angry at a ventriloquist's dummy for the things it has said.
But we must not give up in frustration and retreat to the lobotomized safety of our televisions. Still embedded deep within our genes are the strengths and capacities we need to solve the ills of our communities. These capacities are exemplified by the people in this book, who -- though sometimes misguided -- took their destinies into their own hands and embraced life with gusto and determination and love.