The best books on Appalachia (for people who aren’t from Appalachia)

Who am I?

I was born and raised in the suburbs of eastern Pennsylvania, not far from the Appalachian Mountains, but a world away from the place the rest of the country calls “Appalachia.” Researching All This Marvelous Potential, my book about Robert Kennedy’s 1968 tour of eastern Kentucky, was a revelation. Appalachia is rich in Black history, and queer history, and labor history, and a national leader in education. I am a journalist and author. All This Marvelous Potential is my sixth book.


I wrote...

All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy's 1968 Tour of Appalachia

By Matthew Algeo,

Book cover of All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy's 1968 Tour of Appalachia

What is my book about?

In early 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy ventured deep into the heart of Appalachia to gauge the progress of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Kennedy viewed his two days in Kentucky as an opportunity to test his anti-war and anti-poverty message with hardscrabble white voters. Among the strip mines, one-room schoolhouses, and dilapidated homes, however, Kennedy encountered a strong mistrust and intense resentment of establishment politicians.

In All This Marvelous Potential, author Matthew Algeo meticulously retraces RFK's tour of eastern Kentucky, visiting the places he visited and meeting with the people he met. Algeo explains how and why the region has changed since 1968, and why it matters for the rest of the country.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia

By Elizabeth Catte,

Book cover of What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia

Why this book?

A welcome and necessary antidote to J.D. Vance’s drivel, Elizabeth Catte shatters stereotypes about Appalachia with a sledgehammer then crushes the pieces to dust under her feet. Contrary to much of what you hear and read about the place, Catte’s Appalachia is diverse, creative, entrepreneurial, energetic, and smart. The problem isn’t in Appalachia. The problem is outside it.


Mud Creek Medicine: The Life of Eula Hall and the Fight for Appalachia

By Kiran Bhatraju,

Book cover of Mud Creek Medicine: The Life of Eula Hall and the Fight for Appalachia

Why this book?

Eula Hall, who passed away at the age of 93 in May 2021, was a bona fide American hero. A self-described “hillbilly activist” who left school after the eighth grade, Hall founded the Mud Creek Clinic in Floyd County, Kentucky, to offer free health care to the region’s poor and uninsured. Her generosity was not always well received—the clinic was once destroyed by arson—but Eula Hall helped her neighbors in ways that few other Americans ever have. The next time they tear down a Confederate statue in Kentucky, they should replace it with one of Eula Hall.


Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

By Harry M. Caudill,

Book cover of Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area

Why this book?

Few books have changed the course of history like Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Exposing political corruption, environmental destruction, and endemic poverty in Appalachia, Night Comes put poverty squarely on the national agenda and inspired LBJ’s War on Poverty. Although not rigorously factual — Caudill never let the facts get in the way of a good story — Night Comes is a priceless document of its time and place, and required reading for anyone who wants to understand Appalachian culture and history in the middle of the 20th century.


Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia

By Erik Reece,

Book cover of Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness: Radical Strip Mining and the Devastation of Appalachia

Why this book?

Lost Mountain documents mountain-top removal, an especially pernicious form of strip mining, which is, unfortunately, just what it sounds like: explosives and massive earth-moving equipment are used to lop the top off a mountain to scoop out the coal inside. Technologically, it’s a fascinating process. Environmentally, it’s a disaster. Reece writes lyrically about the loss of a single mountain in Kentucky, an almost incomprehensible vanishing, perfectly legal, and utterly devastating.


Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty

By Thomas Kiffmeyer,

Book cover of Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty

Why this book?

The Appalachian Volunteers began in the early ’60s as a ragtag group of college kids who spent their summers fixing up one-room schoolhouses in rural Kentucky. With funding from government anti-poverty programs, it grew into a formidable organization dedicated to fighting strip mining and economic injustice. Then it was killed, like so many good things, by the Nixon administration. This superb history of the AVs is really a history of Appalachia—and America—in the 1960s.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Appalachia, the Hatfield–McCoy feud, and Kentucky?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Appalachia, the Hatfield–McCoy feud, and Kentucky.

Appalachia Explore 17 books about Appalachia
The Hatfield–McCoy Feud Explore 5 books about the Hatfield–McCoy feud
Kentucky Explore 28 books about Kentucky

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945, Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900, and Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories if you like this list.