A book by the director of the Appalachian Center for Community Service at Emory & Henry College offers fresh thinking about the link between people and place, how they shape one another, and how they create opportunities for a new kind of citizenship for the twenty-first century.
Dr. Tal Stanley, an E&H associate professor of American studies and public policy and community service, is the author of The Poco Field: An American Story of Place. The book, which was published by the University of Illinois Press, is now available online and in bookstores.
In The Poco Field, Stanley tells the story of his grandparents, C. T. Apperson and Aldah Williams Apperson, and their efforts to enter the American middle class as they saw it in the Pocahontas coalfields of southern West Virginia from the 1920s through the late 1940s. . While telling his grandparents’ story, Stanley also writes the biographies of two communities that helped to shape their lives, Keystone, in McDowell County, West Virginia and Newbern, in Pulaski County, Virginia.
“The stories of these two places, interwoven with and told through my grandparents’ lives, make crystalline the assumptions and values on which my grandparents built their lives, the choices they made, the sacrifices their choices required, and the costs they paid for their choices,” Stanley said. “I also write of the choices they could not make because they could not envision such choices as possibilities in those places.”
He adds, “By telling my grandparents’ story and interweaving with it the story of these places, I have aspired to write an honest and discerning representation of ordinary middle class life, its contradictions, and its inconsistencies, its social and cultural costs, and its damages.”
The Poco Field utilizes the extensive archive of letters, articles, clippings, legal documents, recipes, stories, photographs, and other material collected by Stanley’s maternal grandmother, Aldah Williams Apperson. The collection spans 150 to 160 years of history of this family in Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia.
Early reviews have described The Poco Field as “beautifully and movingly written,” and “accessible to a wide range of readers.” One reviewer has written, “More than a memoir…and more than a social history, more than a community study, the book is ultimately a meditation on the tensions between people’s place commitments … and their aspirations for success and mobility, and economic security.” The Poco Field has been described as an extended reflection on what it means to love a place and the creative force places can have in our lives. A profoundly compassionate story, The Poco Field “exposes a tragedy akin to that of Willy Lowman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman,” telling the story of an “American everyman.”
Stanley said these descriptions are apt. At the same time, he hopes that his book holds out the possibilities for alternate choices and possibilities. “My ambition is for this story of people and place to provide the opportunities for readers to grapple with the deep interconnection between their own lives and places and the similar forces, issues, and questions at work in every place. I want readers to realize the creative potential and possibilities for a citizenship of place.”