Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia (Blevins & McElmurray)

Adrian Blevins & Karen Salyer McElmurray, Eds. Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2015. 288 pages. Softcover. $26.95.

The anthology Walk Till The Dogs Get Mean: Meditations of the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia, edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurray, is a canonizing collection of creative nonfiction that gathers the experiences of thirty-two writers to reveal many aspects of the forbidden with Appalachian cultures of the last seventy-five years. The topics include a coming to terms with sexual identity, transgender identity, race, politics, individual expression of self, how pursuing individual dreams within communal responsibilities, among others, within the context of being Appalachian. In this collective act of the challenging the silence of the forbidden, the editors are attempting to answer, “Weren’t we ourselves—full-blown Appalachians?…Why are we excluding ourselves from our own canon?”

The anthology as a whole makes transparent the mutual and often painful experience of being from a
place that is home but that cannot be home forever because of the confines of culture, family or geography. Each essay exposes the struggle of going off from home and the longing and loneliness—or alternately the comfort and celebration—that the journey and distance brings.

This collection offers nonfiction accounts of established, contemporary Appalachian writers as well as emerging ones. Recognizable voices from the Appalachian literary cannon include Chris Offutt, bell hooks, Silas House, Dorothy Allison, and Crystal Wilkinson. Emerging artists include the likes of Jessie van Eerden, whose essay contributes the title to the collection. Her essay “Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean,” is a gracefully constructed and meditative personal essay about her return to West Virginia and reconstructing her life after the end of her marriage. In a search for peace and what comes next, the narrator walks the hills and neighborhood of her home and also tries to write her way through the pain, writing on scraps of paper “Walk till the dogs get mean and then walk a little further.”

Van Eerden follows her own directives, both literal and figurative, as she walks herself toward healing: “I notice among them is the basic truth the mean dogs know of the world: hunger and waves of animal hurt…I see there’s… something inside the hunger; it’s like glimpsing the soft pink scar-skin where this one husky has lost its ear.” All the dogs she encounters also nudge her to confront her own feelings. “Homesick for what? For something older than myself, something ancient and inside hunger and inside sickbed loneliness and inside a tending and inside a song; home is inside-of and also holding it all.”

In other sections of the anthology, the forbidden comes in many forms, whether with religion, gender identity or race. In “Homeless” by Michael Croley, the author recounts his coming to terms with the validity of his life as material for his creative writing. “When my fiction writing professor learned that I was half-Korean and from Appalachia she wondered why I wasn’t writing about that,” begins his piece. Interspersed with the story of his education as a young writer are two other stories: one of his mother’s migration to Corbin, Kentucky at the age of nineteen with her husband, Croley’s father, from Korea, and the second is a historic and personal history of his hometown of Corbin.

The essay is more of a critical one with lyrical notes and thoughtful structure—interspersing passages that are plainly told with carefully chosen details. Croley depicts the town as a character in his past with details such as Corbin being the home to the first KFC, detailing how the railway system shaped the town, and the town’s history of racism—the expulsion of its African American citizens in 1919. These historical facts are offset with stories of the writer’s childhood and young adult life:

I was called Ching-Chong, a Japanese motherfucker, a Chinese motherfucker, and a Chink. During an argument with a female classmate, she hatefully said to me, “Why don’t you just go back to where you came from?” And I replied, knowing full well how this would spite her, “You mean, up the road?”

So “Homesick for what?” is a question Croley has to answer as he embraces his mother’s story and his own as not one that is forbidden to tell, but one that is essential to his purpose as a writer. And as with each piece in Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, the veil is lifted on what is forbidden when silence is ended. This collection reveals an essential nature of being an Appalachian writer—that what has not been said is often the most important thing to say.

Beth Newberry is a writer and editor living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been published in Sojourners, Still: The Journal, and The Louisville Review. Her essay “The Center of the Compass” was named a notable essay of 2010 by Robert Atwan in the 2011 Best American Essays. She writes at thehillville.com.

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