“Hills of Home,” by Debbie Richard. Electo Publishing LLC (2014). 266 pages.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If you ever wanted to find a book that is an incredible chronicle of what it was like to grow up in early to mid-20th century West Virginia, Debbie Richard’s autobiography/folklife chronicle “Hills of Home” provides a plethora of detail using the lives of her family and her own.
The author grew up in Elizabeth and Walton. In fact, her life and the lives of her family will remind a reader strongly of the still popular television show “The Waltons,” that aired from 1971 to 1981 and in reruns in perpetuity. The Waltons were a large family all determined to navigate the bumps and roadblocks of life in rural Virginia, while cheerleading, advising and loving one another regardless of the problems — with life or one another.
In fact, Earl Hamner, who created the show, wrote a blurb for Richard’s book: “I think the book is a valuable detailed and most honest documentation of a part of Appalachia that has not been celebrated so well until now.”
West Virginia has kept a foot in the door of old-time life perhaps a bit longer than most rural states, and if anyone remembers what the best of a region can be, it’s West Virginians.
Richard writes multiple chapters about her family and neighbors who are grounded in what is often regarded as the Golden Age of American life, largely after World War II. In this time period, readers will find a mostly bucolic life, with hardworking, self-sufficient citizens who maintained a steadfast, optimistic outlook on life.
Some of the elements in her book include recipes that make your mouth water, even if you are determined to stay gluten-free. Customs for the holidays — Santa on the roof and Mom making Halloween costumes — outhouses, hunting ginseng and, of particular interest perhaps to today’s aficionados of local gardening, is the detail of the vegetable gardens and land use.
Here’s a little jingle that one of Richard’s relatives chanted as beans and corn were planted:
One for the bug
One for the fly
One for the Devil
And one for I
I did wonder sometimes when something happened, described only in two to three sentences, what happened next, such as when a child was bitten by a copperhead. It’s clear the child survived, but it’s not clear what repercussions or struggles that may have come after. Likewise, when one child was nearly garroted when she ran into a clothesline. Many of the sections are quite short, some only a paragraph long.
Eventually, Richard takes center stage as she relates growing up in the 1970s — the music, the first jobs and the dating scene. She relates much of this through diary entries. Here, the chapters are much longer. At the end of the book are dozens of photos of Richard and her family.
The amazing amount of detail Richard provides might make this book of particular interest to those who collect books about folklife and folkways. Richard’s book invites you to a true folklife experience.
WV Book Team member Cat Pleska interviewed Richard for some inside information into her book and her return to West Virginia:
Q: You took care of your mother until she passed away. Did you come up with the idea of writing this autobiography at that time?
A: I had just started writing “Hills of Home” in early January of 2009, and had said to my mother, “You know what I’d really like to be able to do? I’d like to stay home with you and write.” Little did I know that only a couple of months later her health would decline, and that wish to be near her full time became a reality.
Q: As a native West Virginian, could you speak to why you left the state and when?
A: I left West Virginia in June of 1990 to live near Myrtle Beach, where we had vacationed on several occasions over the years. Jobs were scarce at that time where I lived, and I was ready for a new adventure.
Q: You’ve stated that you plan to move back to West Virginia. Why is that?
A: In June of this year, I will have lived in South Carolina for 25 years, but my heart longs for the hills of West Virginia, where my roots are and where I will always call home. No matter how long you’ve been away, there is something that draws you back. It would be difficult for anyone who has not grown up in Appalachia to fully comprehend that.
Q: Where do you plan to live?
A: I don’t have a definite location yet, but have considered Parkersburg, where I was born, as it would be in driving distance of friends and family.
Q: Explain why you thought it important to record the daily and work lives of your relatives and yourself.
A: Many of my family members had already passed on, and neither my brothers nor I have children to hand the stories down to, so I realized if I didn’t preserve them, they would be lost forever.
Q: Who do you think your book will appeal to?
A: My desire is these stories will enlighten those less fortunate who’ve not had the pleasure of living a rural country life in the hills and to embrace the memories of those who have.
Q: How do you know Earl Hamner?
A: Earl Hamner and I have been connected through social media, but I really began to know him a couple of years ago when I sent him a copy of my first book, “Resiliency,” which was a chapbook of poetry. He reached out to me to let me know he enjoyed my poems. I mailed Earl Hamner a copy of “Hills of Home,” and he wrote a blurb for the book.
Q: What do you miss most about growing up during that particular time in West Virginia?
A: I remember my childhood days, the love of family and togetherness, the realization that we may not have had a lot compared to the world’s standards, but we were rich in love.
Q: What do you plan to write next?
A: I recently completed a full-length manuscript of poetry with plans to have it illustrated by West Virginia artist Ashley Teets, of Morgantown.
The blue crawdad, its pinchers flailing, crawled out of its hideout in the damp earth, a hole in my Grandmother’s yard. He seemed to be out of place, this granddaddy of all crawdads,
royal in color and size, larger than the small brown ones we usually saw while playing in the nearby creek.
His features resembled that of a small lobster, colored differently, blue instead of red, as our blood appears
when it comes to the surface.
Cat Pleska is a writer, educator and publisher. She is the president of Mountain State Press and an essayist at West Virginia Public Radio. Her website is www.catpleska.com, and she can be reached by email at email@example.com.