5 Books: Appalachian Noir

Recently, I read an old article by David Joy that was published in The Bitter Southerner. Its a powerful piece of writing – describing the empathy and connection that Joy has with the people living in the area of North America called Appalachia. It was writing that moved me to tears.

Appalachia refers to the cultural region of the Eastern United States that stretches from southern New York to northern Alabama and Georgia. Appalachia has long struggled with poverty and violence. Its people considered to be eccentric and hard. They are a people that struggle and survive.

David Joy grew up in Appalachia, in North Carolina, and uses his experiences growing up as the foundations for his short stories and novels. Joy and a handful of other writers are creating their own niche of fiction – called the Appalachian Noir. Here’s five books that you should be reading:

The Line that Held Us by David Joy

This book is a powerful exploration of the ties that bind us, and the hope for redemption that we have as human beings. While out poaching, Darl Moody accidentally kills the kid brother of the town thug named Dwayne Brewer. Enlisting his best friend Calvin to help cover up the accidental murder, Darl finds himself plagued by guilt. Dwayne soon suspects Darl and Calvin of murdering his brother, and pursues them with a vengeance. Exploding in violence and raw emotion, David Joy’s poetic writing style and fast-moving plot will rip your heart out.

Serena by Ron Rash

Published in 2008, Rash’s tale of North Carolina timber barons spent time on the New York Times Bestseller List. Set in 1929, Serena is the new wife to a timber baron and proves early on that she can do anything that men can do – from catching rattlesnakes to saving her husband’s life. This is not a romance however, and the novel quickly turns to betrayal and murder. This is a novel that powerfully explores gender roles, desperation, and mental illness. In 2014, a film of the same name was released starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Written in 1997, this novel won the National Book Award and became an academy-awarding winning film. Telling the tale of a Confederate deserter and his journey home (think The Odyssey), the book is more about the women that were left behind as the men left home to fight in the Civil War. Set in the heart of Appalachia, Frazier effectively captures the weird human behavior that can reveal itself during war time. The power in the novel is the way that it emotionally connects through the tragic transformation of the book’s main characters. The ending will linger.

The Weight of This World by David Joy

A close companion to The Line that Held Us, David Joy’s second novel exists in the same problematic world. In his nonfiction essay for The Bitter Southerner, Joy recounts the story of his best friend returning from war with extreme PTSD – and then murdering his own family before taking his life. That story lingers in the pages of this book, as Joy pulls back the curtain on the opioid crisis that thrives in Appalachia and the consequences of war. This is a gritty, violent, and beautiful book about human secrets and human pain.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

This is not a book set in Appalachia – but instead takes place in the Ozarks. The Ozarks are a cultural twin to Appalachia, and I include it in this list because Woodrell is masterful at creating a community connected by drugs, violence, and the bitter realities of poverty and nature. This novel is the story of Ree, a strong sixteen-year-old that goes out in search of her escaped-convict father. Her family is one that protects it’s own, and the truths that Ree finally learns will force her to look deep within herself. Jennifer Lawrence played Ree in the film adaption, and won an Academy Award.