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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia

Why did I love 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.

By Elizabeth Catte,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What You Are Getting Wrong about Appalachia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America's "forgotten tribe" of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America's recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Kiran Bhatraju,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mud Creek Medicine as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2015 Kentucky Literary Award, 2014 Nautilus Silver Medal Award for Books on Social Justice, and Foreward Reviews nominee for Biography of the Year--- From deep in the mountains of Appalachia to the steps of Capitol Hill, Mud Creek Medicine chronicles the life of an iconoclastic woman with a resolute spirit to help her people.
Eula Hall, born into abject poverty in Greasy Creek, Kentucky, found herself -- through sheer determination and will -- at the center of a century-long struggle to lift up a part of America that is too often forgotten.

Through countless interviews and meticulous…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Harry M. Caudill,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Night Comes to the Cumberlands as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

At the start of the 1960s the USA was unquestionably the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world.

Yet despite its prosperity and influence there were areas of the country which seemed to have been forgotten.

In 1962 Harry Caudill, a lawyer and legislator, decided to shine a light upon the appalling conditions which he witnessed in Eastern Kentucky.

His introduction lays out the issues which he saw before him: A million Americans in the Southern Appalachians live in conditions of squalor, ignorance and ill health which could scarcely be equaled in Europe or Japan or, perhaps, in parts…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Erik Reece,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Lost Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new form of strip mining has caused a state of emergency for the Appalachian wilderness and the communities that depend on it-a crisis compounded by issues of government neglect, corporate hubris, and class conflict. In this powerful call to arms, Erik Reece chronicles the year he spent witnessing the systematic decimation of a single mountain and offers a landmark defense of a national treasure threatened with extinction.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Thomas Kiffmeyer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Reformers to Radicals as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Appalachian Volunteers formed in the early 1960s, determined to eliminate poverty through education and vocational training and improve schools and homes in the mountainous regions of the southeastern United States. In Reformers to Radicals: The Appalachian Volunteers and the War on Poverty, Thomas Kiffmeyer illustrates how the activists ultimately failed, mainly because they were indecisive about the fundamental nature of their mission. The AVs, many of them college students, were also distracted by causes not directly connected with the war on poverty, such as civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. Despite some progress, the organization finally lost…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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