In his book, As Country as it Gets: Short stories from Appalachia, Roberts writes of his boyhood work and play—logging with mules, searching for and selling Ginseng, building wooden wagons that he and his brothers raced down hillsides, and, later, making moonshine.
These essays are fascinating to me. Though I’ve never lived there, I grew up hearing stories of my ancestors who lived in the mountains of West Virginia. I can imagine my granddad in these stories, which are so much like his own.
In lots of ways evident from this book, life in Appalachia is like life a century ago. My dad grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, but he didn’t go to a one-room school-house heated by coal, or use an outhouse, or plow with draft horses. Nor did he know how to make whiskey without scorching it. But Mr. Roberts did. Rumors say he could even “get a poodle to tree a raccoon.”
There may have been disadvantages to such a life, but there were acres of advantages. By the time Mr. Roberts was a teenager, he could do things most men can’t do today. If he needed something, he made it. If he had a problem, he found a way to fix it, all through experience. A good example is from his boyhood wagon making:
“In my younger days I built three or four of these types of wagons. I learned if the front axle was a little shorter than the rear axle it would roll and could be pulled by hand much better. Several other young boys also built this type of wagon.”
Besides riding down hills in the wagons, the boys also used them for gathering Ginseng in the woods and hauling the valuable roots to buyers—one of their few ways to earn money.
The writing in this book is rough. At times Mr. Roberts is repetitive and gives almost too much detail. Other times, he gives little more than an outline of a topic, leaving the reader with questions. But the stories are always sincere and interesting. Roberts writes in his own style, for his own enjoyment, and so that others can “step into a world of values and lifestyle rarely seen today.” The unpolished style actually contributes to the whole experience:
“At nighttime when hunting raccoon he [Smokey the coon dog] was the most amazing dog I may have ever known. Coon hunting, he would be the last dog to leave your side, with him scratching and pissing on everything. Then suddenly, at a great distance from you he just starts barking up a tree….”
If you’re like me, nostalgic for the older, simpler way of life, enjoy history, and enjoy sincere writing, then I recommend As Country as it Gets.