Book review: ‘Mountain Girls’ is a mix of memoir, social history

By By James E. Casto
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
Author Stephanie Kadel Taras may live elsewhere for now, but her latest novel indicates she’s a Mountain State girl at heart. Photo courtesy of TIME PIECES PERSONAL BIOGRAPHIES INC.
“Mountain Girls.” By Stephanie Kadel Taras. TimePieces Personal Biographies. $12.99.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Novelist Thomas Wolfe famously warned “You can’t go home again.”

But Stephanie Kadel Taras has shown just how wrong Wolfe was.

If you’re determined enough, play your cards right and have just a bit of luck, you can come home — and find it’s still there, waiting to welcome you.

In the 1980s, Stephanie (now that I’ve read all her deepest secrets in her memoir, her first name comes naturally to me) was a young girl growing up in Elkins.

Today, she’s a professional writer who lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she has “a small house with a big vegetable garden, two dogs, three cats and a husband who owns a used record store.”

Stephanie says that when she talks about West Virginia to people in Michigan, their reaction is predictable: “If it sinks in that I’m talking about a different state from Virginia, and which state that is, their faces suddenly change like they’re thinking, ‘You grew up in that place of inbred hicks and barefoot children and black lung? How did you make it out of there?’”

In her new book, “Mountain Girls” (TimePieces Personal Biographies, $12.99), she writes about her girlhood in Elkins, about leaving the Mountain State — and about its magnetic lure that’s drawing her back.

If you’ve been reading carefully, you will have noted the book’s title is “Mountain Girls,” not “Mountain Girl,” as this is more than just a book by and about Stephanie.

In school, both Stephanie and her best friend Lisa were different from most of their classmates.

Thus, perhaps it was predictable that they would link up.

It was perhaps predictable, too, that as adults they would each go their separate ways.

But who could have predicted that ultimately they would again bond and become closer than sisters?

Lisa has returned to Elkins from Baltimore. Stephanie visits her often. She and her husband have even bought an old house there. At the moment, they’re renting out the house.

But who knows what the future will bring? Maybe Elkins needs a used record store.

As a writer, Stephanie helps people tell the story of their family or the history of their company. At some point, as she compiled other people’s life stories, she decided to tell her own. The resulting book is a thoughtful mix of memoir and social history.

Together, Stephanie and Lisa take the reader along as they explore the hills and hollows around Elkins and explore, too, the history and culture of a state that’s not like any of the other 49.

Even though she saved and treasured a poem Stephanie wrote as a third-grader, her mother did all she could to discourage her from embarking on a writing career. Too difficult and unpredictable, her mother said. So Stephanie tried her hand at teaching.

But writing was calling her — just as West Virginia is calling her.

She gave in to the siren song of life as a writer — and, similarly, I’m willing to bet that before too much longer she will be living and working, not in Ann Arbor, but in her West Virginia home.

Stephanie is scheduled to make half a dozen appearances in West Virginia this week:

n On Tuesday from 4 to 6 p.m., she will do a book signing at Empire Books at Pullman Square in downtown Huntington.

n She will talk and sign books at three Kanawha County libraries — at the main library in downtown Charleston at 6 p.m. Wednesday, at the Riverside Public Library in Belle at 10 a.m. Thursday, and at the Clendenin Public Library at 6 p.m. Thursday.

n On Friday at 5:30 p.m., she will talk and sign books at the Appalachian Gallery in Morgantown.

n And on Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., she will sign at Main Street Books in Elkins.

“Mountain Girls” can be ordered online at

James E. Casto, of Huntington, a retired newspaper editor, frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

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