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‘Hill Women’ Examines Three Generations In Eastern Kentucky

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Stories of life in Appalachia are often told from a male perspective, but many young writers and authors are trying to change that. They want to make sure the story of Appalachia’s women are not forgotten. 

In Cassie Chambers’ memoir “Hill Women” she examines her life in eastern Kentucky through the eyes of three generations of women in her family. 

She spoke with Eric Douglas to discuss the book -- and her pursuits that ultimately led her back to eastern Kentucky. 

Douglas: The book is set in eastern Kentucky. Can you explain to me a little bit more specifically where we're talking about?

Chambers: The book is set in Owsley County, which is one of the poorest counties in America. It's a place where the average household income is around $16,000 a year for a family of four. It has very high rates of disability. There are two restaurants in town, a sort of dairy bar and a diner. No franchise restaurants, no franchise businesses other than some dollar stores and a couple gas stations. And so it's really just a very small, very rural town in the hollow of the eastern Kentucky mountains.

Douglas: You made a choice leading into your junior year in high school to leave the mountains to go away to school. Why did you make that decision?

Chambers: My parents had always instilled in me how important education was. And although I had not seen a lot of the world, and I had not traveled to a lot of places, I had been raised to know that that was something I wanted to do. There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to go to college and that I would probably go to college away from my family. That's what my mom had done. That's what she had sort of assumed I would do, as well. 

I got a brochure to this international high school in New Mexico. It was free for everyone who got in and then it had college scholarships. I decided to apply. When I got in, it was such a good opportunity that I felt like I couldn't pass it up. That sort of started me on this journey to seeing the larger world and experiencing the larger world outside of the mountains.

Douglas: You talked about, both at the high school and then at Yale, feeling uncomfortable with your own roots, your Appalachian roots. You were trying to put them aside and trying to fit in for a while. What was that period like for you?

Chambers: I think I was always aware of the negative idea of a hillbilly, all those stereotypes. As a teenager, I think all of us want nothing more than to be accepted. I thought that coming from the mountains, being a part of a family that I think the outside world probably still thinks of as hillbillies in a lot of ways, was something that was going to stop me from being able to fit into these new worlds that I was trying to explore. I thought people would judge me and that they would look down on me. 

I spent a lot of my late teenage years and early adulthood trying to figure out how to be who I thought belonged in these privileged environments. I didn't think I could both be myself, the poor kid from eastern Kentucky, and fit into these very privileged environments that I was working really, really hard to be a part of.

Douglas: Once you were finished with Harvard Law, you decided to return to eastern Kentucky.

Chambers: I'd been working on problems in Boston, on poverty law issues. There are good organizations doing really good work in Boston and New York and DC. There are good organizations doing that kind of work in Kentucky, there just aren't as many people trying to do it to address rural poverty. It's harder. People are more diffuse. There are all kinds of unique logistical challenges. I decided if I wanted to work on these issues, I felt tied to Kentucky, I've always felt tied to Kentucky, and I decided it was time to go home and make a difference in communities like the one I grew up in.

Douglas: To come back to the book for a second, it's a memoir, it's you talking about your experiences and the lives of your family. What lessons did you learn about yourself when you actually had to sit down and put it all together?

Chambers: I think there's this idea out there of this “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative. A lot of people, if they were telling a story like mine, would start with being born into poverty in a trailer, and then working hard and going to the Ivy League. That would be the story and that would be the arc of it. 

I knew this intuitively, but writing the book really drove home how it took three generations for me to even have the opportunity to even think about applying to those types of educational institutions. Now that I see that, I see that change takes generations and it takes a village. I've really been talking about “Hill Women” as this anti-bootstraps narrative because I hope what it does is change the way that we talk about those types of stories, those sorts of rags-to-riches or poverty-to-elite institution-type stories.

Hill Women is published by Ballantine Books. This interview is part of an occasional series with authors from the region.

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