Beyond the Book: Background information when reading Burning Bright

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Burning Bright


by Ron Rash

Burning Bright by Ron Rash
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2010, 224 pages
    Feb 2011, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Pam Watts

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The Appalachian Region
According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Appalachian Region stretches along the Appalachian Mountain range from Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi up through parts of Pennsylvania and New York (see map below left). When most people refer to Appalachia, however, they are referring to the central (Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky) and southern regions (North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and south). Most of Rash's stories are populated with "Mountain Townies" - locals of the Boone and Asheville areas of North Carolina in the Central Appalachian region.

According to my cousin Jinny, a local of the area who also happens to be working on her PhD in history at Appalachian State University with a specialization in Appalachian Studies, the first settlement in the area was Cades Cove, established in Tennessee in 1818, across the border from Boone, though it remained officially "frontier" until the 1830s-40s. The original settlers were nearly all farmers and livestock herders, though the region never saw the large plantations associated with much of the south. The decline of the family farm began with the westward expansion of the early 1800s and was sealed during the Civil War when male workers were gone, food shortages were ever-present, and frequent raidings occurred. Overpopulation and economic competition with the West (who had better transportation systems and soil for growing cash crops like grains) kept the region from bouncing back. During the Industrial period, farmers and immigrants moved to labor camps for mining and logging. The post-depression era saw an out-migration of farmers, who could no longer support their families on their land.

A common misconception about the inhabitants of the region is that they are poor and always have been - in fact, most farmers in the region did well until the Civil War, and many continued to prosper afterwards. Other common misconceptions are that they never kept slaves - in fact, wealthier families kept as many as 20; and that they all supported the Confederacy - in fact, Cades Cove as well as much of Tennessee was Union, as were a few counties in North Carolina. Lastly, many assume that all inhabitants are of Western European descent - in fact, besides the Scotch-Irish, German, and English settlers who arrived in Virginia in the 1700s and migrated south, Central Appalachia is home to the "Eastern Band" of Cherokees who stayed during the Trail of Tears, Eastern and Southern European immigrants; as well as Jewish Merchants, who all settled in the region during the Industrial Period. The region is also home to some who identify as Melungeons, whose ancestors are believed to be of European/Middle Eastern origins intermarried with Indians and African-Americans.

Today the region is celebrated for its turn of the century ballads, Bluegrass, and Old Times music, hearty food, storytelling, and craft culture.

Article by Pam Watts

This article was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the February 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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