When I read Kentucky, I was hoping for horse races and bourbon, bluegrass and moonshine. I did get that in one book, My Bluegrass Baby by Molly Harper. Because the main character worked for the tourism board for Kentucky, the novel gave me all the accoutrement I craved from a book set in Kentucky. I recommend it for a fun read to get you in the mood for Derby, or if you are looking for a quick romance with sass and a definite sense of being in Kentucky.
I also read three other Kentucky-set books. None tickled me like My Bluegrass Baby, but they each give a deeper sense of life in the state, and of life in general.
Novel: River of Earth
Author: James Still, lived in a log cabin in Kentucky
Setting: Depression era coal mining camps of rural Kentucky
Category: Literary fiction
Moving from mining camp to mining camp during the Depression, the family in this book follow the river of earth — coal — to try to survive. And survive is barely what they do. A miner’s life is a hard one, but for the father in this book, it’s the only life.
His wife, meanwhile, nearly starves to death while also having to feed her husband’s free-loading brothers. Each time the mines close, she makes a life on the land growing crops, and is bright and happy to do so. The food she grows, and the clear sunshine she grows it in, gives her hope. As soon as she gets ahead of things, with plants in the ground and food on the table, though, her husband, Brack, itches to get underground and mine coal. He uproots the family over and over to live in dirty, dusty mining camps.
“The mines hain’t opened yet,” Father said. “They’re laying a new spur o’ track so it won’t be long. No use stirring the top of the ground if you’re going to dig your bread underside.”
The best part of this book is the voice. The author does an amazing job with language. I couldn’t understand much of the dialogue, like “crap” for “crop,” or “pull a rusty” for playing a prank, and I had to puzzle through it. I loved it for that, though. Dialect fascinates me, and when it’s done well it adds as much to the sense of place as painting a picture of the scenery would.
Novel: The Birds of Opulence
Author: Crystal Wilkinson, raised in Indian Creek, Kentucky
Setting: 1960s-1990s fictitious black township of Opulence, Kentucky
Category: African-American fiction, Literary fiction
Set in the small black township of Opulence, Kentucky, and spanning the years from the ’60s to the ’90s, this short novel is a snapshot of the births, lives, pregnancies, and deaths of four generations of African-American women: the birds of Opulence. Peppered throughoutt the book are glimpses into this small town world, like the annual July Church gathering, the Dinner on the Grounds. Everyone who grew up in Opulence and has scattered across the country returns, the women don their pretty dresses and hats, the men wear suits and ties, and after church services, they feast.
Many a marriage has begun at Dinner on the Grounds, and many a union has been broken there too, when strange eyes meet across the churchyard.
The more interesting story, though is the patterns in the women’s lives, of becoming women — and mothers — before they are ready, and the consequences they must bear that the men simply walk away from, invisible and unscathed. The women, though, they carry the visible signs, and therefore the blame and the shame, and their lives are changed forever.
Novel: Icy Sparks
Author: Gwyn Hyman Rubio, lives in Kentucky
Setting: 1950’s eastern Kentucky mountains
Category: Literary fiction
Rural Kentucky, in a small town where different is not acceptable, and Icy Sparks is born As she grows up, she has uncontrollable ticks — fits where she “pops her eyes out,” swears at her teachers, and jerks her body in ways she cannot control. She hates herself for it, and the rest of the town does, too.
This novel is her coming of age story, her finding of other “differents,” her stay at an institution with other kids with mental or physical differences, and the deep trust and relationships she builds, particularly with her grandmother and grandfather, and her morbidly obese adult friend Emma, who becomes her teacher when Icy can no longer attend school.
The most soulful part of the book comes near the end, when Icy finds her people and her voice, a way to accept her jerks and croaks, and the deep love others have for her and her for them. The novel ends with unexpected hope, and is beautiful for it.
For Further Reading in Kentucky
Books I’ve read and recommend:
– My Bluegrass Baby by Molly Harper
Books that have been recommended to me that I’ve not yet read:
– Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.