Kentucky’s James Still (1905-2001) may well be, like James Dickey, a poet better known for a novel. As Dickey had his poetry overshadowed by the tremendous success of the novel Deliverance, Still’s poetry often takes backseat in popularity to his novel River of Earth. On the other hand, River of Earth is, in many ways, a poem itself, an epic of the Kentucky coal mine tradition and those humble men and women who lived it and worked in it.
Published in 1940, River of Earth chronicles the hardscrabble life of the Baldridge family, a young man, his wife, his two sons, his daughter, and his newborn boy. Forced to subside on the land by the closing of one coal mine after another, Brack Baldrige longs to go back to the life of a miner, much to the consternation of his wife, Alpha, who prefers the farming existence, one which will allow for greater stability. The mines open back up eventually, however, and the Baldridges uproot themselves again in pursuit of work.
Unlike a popular novel, River of Earth does not race toward a thrilling and explosive climax. It builds slowly in a series of vivid set pieces and vignettes narrated by the elder son. It is a quiet examination of the hardships of one family at one time, the early part of the twentieth century, and the trials they endure without self-pity but much forbearance and even humor. Still writes beautifully, without pretense but with much simple lyricism and life-giving detail of the land and the people. One of the more outstanding features of the book is its dialogue, rendered with accuracy for Appalachian speech. (Still always objected to his dialogue being labeled “dialect,” a term he found inexact and demeaning.) The characters fairly sing when they speak to one another, especially Alpha’s aging, ailing mother, in her remembrance of times past.
River of Earth, for all its acclaim, deserves an even wider readership.