By Michael Dean Benton
Joseph Anthony is in the midst of a creative surge. In 2009, the Bluegrass Community and Technical College humanities professor authored Camden Blues, a short story collection put out by Wind Publishing. Earlier this year, Old Seventy Creek Press released his novel Pickering’s Mountain. Later this year, Wind will release Bluegrass Funeral, a collection of short stories/novellas about Central Kentucky. Not bad for a college professor with a 5-5 course load.
I had heard that Anthony’s most recent offering, Pickering’s Mountain, dealt with the issue of mountaintop removal in Eastern Kentucky, and so, with the Kentucky Rising protests of June 1-3 in Frankfort coming up, it seemed this was a good time to read it. I was rewarded in multiple ways: a rich, sensitive text, superb characters, and a keen eye for both the Eastern Kentucky landscape and the ethical complexities of the political issues that affect the communities that reside there.
The story begins with the decision of New Yorkers Sam and Margery to move their family to Eastern Kentucky for the promise of a newspaper job for Sam. On the move to the region, the couple are quickly lost and stranded. They end up on the stoop of Alma Pickering, estranged (in her mind divorced) wife of charismatic Baptist preacher Joshua Pickering.
Alma is a powerful matriarch, easily matching Joshua’s influence, if not outright overpowering him, leading to their fateful struggle over the future of their namesake mountain. Alma is not only estranged from her husband, but also from the hypocrisy of his church community.
While Sam and Margery are the narrators of the novel’s events, it is Alma who acts as the central force, or moral authority, of the novel. Margery is faced with the struggle of raising her family in a new place, but this struggle is bolstered through her relationship with Alma Pickering who takes the family in.
At first, I wondered if we were going to travel down the well worn narrative road of squinty, uptight, smart-but-clueless, urban intellectuals, clashing with earthy, unrefined, uneducated-but-knowledgeable, country folk. Anthony scratches the surface of this cliché, most tellingly in the depiction of Sam, who embodies the insecurities of many literary and cinematic urban protagonists looking for firm footing in the unfamiliar country.
However, Anthony avoids the easy path of stereotypical conflicts and instead draws us in through the construction of complex characters. The characterization of Sam, who could have remained a cliché of the ineffectual urbanite, is deepened through his struggle to learn how to write for a small town newspaper. Anthony uses Sam’s newspaper reporting as a commentary on political events and the way they are made sense of through editorials in the newspaper. In particular, they give us a sense of how Sam is struggling to make sense of the divisions within the community while learning to respect the people that live there. He senses what is being lost in the destruction of the mountains and wrestles with how to communicate this perceived loss without becoming one in a long line of negative outsider critics of Appalachian life.
Anthony, who has worked for 30+ years as a professor in the Humanities, brings this accumulated knowledge and experience to his depictions of this community. Like Sam, he also moved from New York to teach in Eastern Kentucky when he was younger. No doubt he is drawing upon insights, if not experiences, gained from that part of his life.
He has a sensitive eye that is able to draw out the complex qualities and perspectives of multiple characters. A powerful scene that ignites the novel’s narrative fuse is in a town meeting at the community Baptist church over the ACLU lawsuit in regards to the teaching of the Bible to public school students. Instead of pushing a particular agenda here, Anthony instead demonstrates through the rhetorical force of the speakers at the meeting, various perspectives and why people can have valid, yet opposing positions, on important public policy issues. This scene covered 30 pages and I was riveted all the way up to the slow, but volcanic ending reveal.
Anthony also does a great job of portraying the struggles of local newspapers, where everyone knows everyone, in their duty to cover controversial issues. Everything must be considered for its likely communal impact and reporting is never a matter of “just say it, as it is.” A major theme in the novel is that of motivation and intent. This is powerfully brought to life through the actions of Alma’s sons Jimmy and Mason, both angling, through lack of opportunities, for a job with the coal company that is destroying their homeland. Like so many other political issues in this story, this one, too, leaves them divided in the results.