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At Home In the Heart of Appalachia
At Home In the Heart of Appalachia


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John O’Brien has held writing fellowships at the University of Iowa and Stanford University, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His work has appeared in Hudson Review, Massachusetts Review, TriQuarterly, Country Journal, Harrowsmith, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. This is his first book. He lives with his wife, Becky, in Franklin, West Virginia.

John O’Brien’s deeply evocative book reveals a place and a way of life—and the lives of an estranged father and son whose differences rest, ironically, in their own powerful bonds to Appalachia.

John O’Brien was born in Philadelphia, his father having left his beloved home in the West Virginia mountains after an impoverished childhood made all the more painful by family tragedy. Struggling to escape a father defeated by disappointment, displacement, and poverty, John too left home. When John decided to settle near his father’s birthplace in West Virginia, he hoped to comprehend the elder O’Brien’s attachment to the land, as well as the disabling fatalism he had carried north.

What he discovered is hardly the mythic Appalachia most Americans imagine, but a world of extravagant beauty—lush with green mountains, deep forests, ice-cold trout streams, and small hill farms. The people we meet who inhabit this land are for the most part unpretentious, working class, straightforward, open, commonsensical, and easygoing. They tend to look back more than most Americans do, defining themselves by how they fit into an extended family that includes their ancestors. We are in a mountain culture that feels old and deeply rooted, that follows a traditional way of life. It is a world the author would finally love and call his own.

We also come face-to-face with provincialism, intolerance, and—perhaps Appalachia’s defining legacy—the horrors of the coalfields and chemical plants. We see clearly what rapacious greed and exploitation have done for generations to much of the landscape and to the lives of the people. And we learn of the stream of reformers and missionaries, ever ready to show Appalachia the way, whose real contributions tend to be negligible or absurd.

In this clear-eyed, beautifully rendered telling of his story and his father’s, John O’Brien gives us, as well, the history and true heart of Appalachia.

"This is a heartfelt book that you quickly get comfortable in. As endearing as a friend."--Edward Hoagland

"Within minutes of opening this book, I felt at home in the heart of a real writer. There is such modesty and plainspoken beauty in John O'Brien's voice--like the modesty and beauty of Appalachia itself. O'Brien takes two old stories--our sense of place, and the estrangement of a father and son--and makes them fresh and moving all over again." --Paul Hendrickson