Hill Women // by Cassie Chambers
Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains
Pub Day: January 07, 2020
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Nestled in the Appalachian mountains, Owsley County is one of the poorest counties in both Kentucky and the country. Buildings are crumbling and fields sit vacant, as tobacco farming and coal mining decline. But strong women are finding creative ways to subsist in their hollers in the hills.
Cassie Chambers grew up in these hollers and, through the women who raised her, she traces her own path out of and back into the Kentucky mountains. Chambers’s Granny was a child bride who rose before dawn every morning to raise seven children. Despite her poverty, she wouldn’t hesitate to give the last bite of pie or vegetables from her garden to a struggling neighbor. Her two daughters took very different paths: strong-willed Ruth—the hardest-working tobacco farmer in the county—stayed on the family farm, while spirited Wilma—the sixth child—became the first in the family to graduate from high school, then moved an hour away for college. Married at nineteen and pregnant with Cassie a few months later, Wilma beat the odds to finish school. She raised her daughter to think she could move mountains, like the ones that kept her safe but also isolated her from the larger world.
Cassie would spend much of her childhood with Granny and Ruth in the hills of Owsley County, both while Wilma was in college and after. With her “hill women” values guiding her, Cassie went on to graduate from Harvard Law. But while the Ivy League gave her knowledge and opportunities, its privileged world felt far from her reality, and she moved back home to help her fellow rural Kentucky women by providing free legal services.
Appalachian women face issues that are all too common: domestic violence, the opioid crisis, a world that seems more divided by the day. But they are also community leaders, keeping their towns together in the face of a system that continually fails them. With nuance and heart, Chambers uses these women’s stories paired with her own journey to break down the myth of the hillbilly and illuminate a region whose poor communities, especially women, can lead it into the future.
I was hesitant about how honest, or rather personal, I wanted to get with this review. This book had a big impact on me and while some things can be painful or embarrassing to talk about, I do think it is necessary so I will try my best to convey my thoughts and feelings regarding this read. I love reading memoirs, especially by women that come from a different background than I did, so I was immediately drawn to this book. I have had some trouble focusing on reading in general this past week but this book drew me in right away and it was over sooner than I wanted or expected.
Chambers has written a very compelling book that has cast this community in a much different light than I am used to hearing about them. While I have tried hard to recognize and eliminate as much racism and prejudices from my thoughts and speech as I can over the past year, I did have to be honest with myself about my preconceived notions about communities such as the one in Owsley County in Kentucky. I hate to admit it but the majority of them were not very positive as I am a big supporter of traveling and education as a form of cultivating acceptance and empathy for the world but while reading this, I realized what I failed to see all along: The strength, resilience, and dedication of mountain people to their families, traditions, and region.
I now see that things are much more complicated than a community that – from the outside – doesn’t always seem to value education or equal rights for women or health care or some other progressive things. Understanding everything within the context of poverty, the opioid crisis, lack of access to consistent medical care, domestic violence, and the local economics makes the fear of the unknown and the comfort of the familiar much more understandable. Rather than focusing on what I disagree with though, the author managed to instead draw my attention to the strength these women possess as family and community leaders, doing the best they can with the resources they have to provide a good life for themselves and their families. I love how seeing the dedication of the women in her family is something the author took out into the world with her, using it to pave her own path through life that eventually brought her back to the community again to help rural Kentucky women as a lawyer.
Chambers reminded me why I love learning about the lives of others, especially when they grew up with less privilege and resources than I did. There are incredible lessons to be learned from their experiences and by lifting up those communities and groups, we work towards greater equality for everyone. I never even thought about learning about people from the Appalachian mountains before but am so glad I picked up this book. What strength and resilience these women possess!
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About the Author:
Cassie Chambers grew up in eastern Kentucky. She graduated from Yale College, the Yale School of Public Health, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School, where she was president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a student-run law firm that represents low-income clients. Chambers then received a Skadden Fellowship to return to Kentucky to do legal work with domestic violence survivors in rural communities. In 2018, she helped pass Jeanette’s Law, which eliminated the requirement that domestic violence survivors pay an incarcerated spouse’s legal fees in order to get a divorce. She lives in Louisville with her husband and their son.
About the Publisher:
Ballantine Books was established in 1952 by the legendary paperback pioneers Ian and Betty Ballantine. Today, Ballantine is one of America’s largest publishers of hardcover, trade paperback and mass market paperback books — spanning a remarkably wide variety of subjects.
Thank you to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.