Monday, September 10, 2012

Guest Author Sandra Parshall

Most of our guests, on Murder is Everywhere, set their stories outside of the United States.
And one could make a case that Sandy Parshall does as well. Sandy's stories take place on the outer edge of Appalachia, which as she herself says, "has always been a separate world within the larger American culture."
In 2007, Sandy won the Agatha Award for the first-best mystery with her debut novel, Heat of the Moon. In 2008, she was nominated for the Benjamin Franklin Award for Disturbing the Dead. Publisher's Weekly called her third Rachel Goddard mystery "excellent". And now Sandy has brought Rachel back, once again.

The fifth in the series, Bleeding Through, was launched just last week. According to Kirkus, it combines nerve wracking suspense with a twisty mystery. That's Kirkus folks, the toughest reviewers in the business. No writer can ask for more.

Leighton - Monday

What comes to mind when you hear the word Appalachia?

You’re not alone if a string of stereotypes runs through your head. Poverty. Illiteracy. Moonshiners. Guns and coon hounds. Snake-handling churches. Meth-heads and oxy addicts.

You can find all that in central Appalachia. In some ways, the southern mountains  resemble a third world country plopped down in the middle of modern civilization. But if you look beyond the stereotypes, you’ll find people who aren’t very different from the rest of us, struggling with problems that seem beyond their control.

Appalachia encompasses the mountains of the eastern U.S., from northern Mississippi and Alabama up through New England to Canada. Most people, though, seem to think of Appalachia as comprising the southern mountains: the Alleghenies of West Virginia, the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the Blue Ridge and the Unaka range of Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

     Spruce Knob, West Virginia, photo by Aneta Kaluzna

I grew up in a working-poor family on the outer edge of Appalachia, a few miles from the Smokies where my Scottish forebears lived and where my grandfather, Sam Grant, was a smalltown police chief a hundred years ago. You’ll hear a lot of Scottish names in the mountains because most of the early settlers, who began arriving in the 18th century, were Scots-Irish and lowland Scots.

They had no idea they were building homes atop a fortune in coal, and that the presence of the black mineral would eventually bring the ruination of their land and way of life.

Isolated on the ridges and in valleys and hollows, the Scots settlers were an insular people, preserving the culture they’d brought with them. Their traditional music and dance endured through generations, and remain virtually unchanged today.

       Traditional dulcimers, photo by Brian Stansberry

Their speech persists in the Appalachian dialect, which also bears the influences of rural English, Welsh, and German. Mainstream America finds these aspects of mountain culture charming. The snake-handling churches still found in a few places and the widespread drug addiction are less appealing and are seen as proof of the hill people’s backwardness.

I was young, naïve and eager to see new places when I left my first job on my hometown newspaper to move to West Virginia. Over several years I worked on the Welch Daily News, the Beckley Post-Herald, and the Charleston Gazette. I got used to the coal dust that covered everything in mining communities, tap water with a peculiar odor and color, monstrous coal tipples looming over roads, smoldering slag heaps, the trucks and rail cars that rumbled past, shedding coal dust behind them. I never got used to the desperate poverty I saw everywhere, along rutted roads and in remote hollows and little townships, contrasting with the glorious beauty of the soaring, tree-covered peaks.

       Miners’ homes near Logan, WVA, early 1970s, photo by Jack Corn

I arrived in the mountains soon after President Johnson declared War on Poverty.

Instead of taciturn mountaineers who resisted change, I saw a legion of low income people who eagerly joined a movement that promised to improve their lives. Resistance came from local government officials who saw the antipoverty program as a threat to their authority. We all know which side won that war, but I can’t forget the willingness of ordinary people to take on what was ultimately a hopeless fight.

   Lyndon Johnson in West Virginia

In natural resources, Appalachia is the richest part of the United States. Why, then, are so many of its people mired in poverty? Because the mining companies own most of the land in coal country. If they don’t own a piece of land, they probably own the mineral rights, purchased a century ago for a paltry amount from people too unsophisticated to worry about a vital clause in the contract: the companies can use any means necessary to extract the coal. If that means destroying the surface that people live on, so be it.

Typical mountaintop removal mine site, photo courtesy of The Sierra Club

Today a nightmare is playing out in central Appalachia:  mountaintop removal mining – strip mining on steroids. With deep underground coal seams nearing exhaustion, companies trying to get at what remains have turned to an extraction method that uses less manpower. Massive explosions blow open the tops of mountains, releasing toxic chemicals and heavy metals, filling the air for miles around with dust and raining large rocks on nearby houses. Tons of soil, rock, and trees are scraped into surrounding valleys, burying wildlife habitat, streams, family cemeteries, and homes. So far almost 600 mountains have been leveled, and thousands of miles of valleys and waterways have been buried or poisoned.

Toxic runoff from mining site, photo by Eric Loftis

The water coming from residential taps is often too polluted to drink. Cancer and birth defects have increased sharply in populations around mine sites. On an environmental group’s blog recently, a West Virginian posted in the comments: “Please help us. We are dying here.”

The struggle underway now in Fayette County, WVA, is a reminder of what’s at stake. Home to the fabulous white water rapids of the New River Gorge, Fayette County has found a lucrative replacement for the played out underground mines: tourism. Its trails, mountains, and clean waterways now bring in millions of dollars for businesses and local government.

New River Gorge, photo by “Emmybear”/Flickr Creative Commons

But all that is threatened. A mining company based in Mumbai, India, operates a mountaintop mine in the county, and the company plans to double the mine’s size to 3,300 acres. It is seeking permits to dump toxic waste into valleys and waterways around the New River Gorge. Such permission is routinely granted elsewhere. Approval of the Fayette County permits will mean the beginning of the end for a beautiful place and its booming tourism industry.

Why is this happening? Because energy companies need the coal. When you flip a light switch or turn on your TV, you’re probably using electricity generated by coal from  mountaintop mines. So far, Congress and the EPA, the governments of mining states, and the courts have sided with the companies against citizens trying to stop the devastation.

Experts estimate that all the Appalachian coal will be gone in twenty years. The mining companies will move on, leaving behind land they have rendered uninhabitable. Sometimes it seems that only the hill people care, and their strength and pride shows in the protest marches, petitions and letter-writing campaigns, lawsuits, appeals to legislators – and to the world outside the mountains.

Recent protest in WashingtonDC, photo by Jay Mallin

Whether they live deep in Appalachia or in the gentle Blue Ridge like the characters in my books, mountain people are just like you and me. They love their families, they watch television, they go to movies and high school games and listen to popular music. They use computers, and they are rallying supporters via the internet. Appalachia has produced outstanding writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Not everybody is poor and uneducated. But those in the mining counties are caught in circumstances over which they have little control. They can’t salvage what’s left of the mountains they love passionately without some help from the outside.

Think about that the next time you flip a light switch. 


  1. As a kid who grew up on the northern fringe of Appalachia, went to college closer still (in all connotations of that word), summered as a health inspector covering a coal company town along the Allegheny River where company script was still used as currency, and spent time as a lawyer dealing with a power company along along the Clinch River, I say, "BRAVO, Sandra" for telling it like it is and should be told.

    And as a fellow Poisoned Pen Press author (and posse member) I couldn't be prouder!

  2. I echo Jeff's sentiments. Kudos to you, Sandra, for publicizing this ignored debacle. In the 80's and 90's when I made frequent business trips to West Virginia, the locals were already calling the Kanawha Valley "cancer alley." The contrast between the horror of that nickname and hillsides splendid with blooming redbuds broke my heart.

  3. Sandra, I don't know if you saw Ken Burns' PBS series on the national parks, but if I remember right, it mentions how a century ago the lumber companies moved through the area, stripping it bare.

    I spent time in WV and again in the Shenandoah Valley. The Scot influence persists in the language where people still say they're going oot and aboot. I liked the people I met and hope they (and we) succeed in saving the land.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Annamaria, the chemical plants in the Kanawha Valley have always done pretty much as they pleased, releasing poison into the air and the river. I remember one time when I lived there that people near a plant were evacuated from their homes for a few hours because of an especially large release of toxic gas, but most of the time people couldn't protect themselves unless they wanted to wear gas masks constantly. I don't think much has changed since then.

    I appreciate the authors on Murder is Everywhere inviting me to visit and allowing me to post about a topic most people will find unpleasant and deeply troubling.

  5. It's nice to see you here, but there is so much sadness about this situation. I vacationed in this beautiful country, totally unaware of what was being done to it. I wish I felt optimistic about any activism, but I fear the strength of the companies, and the demand
    for energy is stronger than good sense. Thank you for writing about this.

  6. What an excellent post, Sandy! I thank heavens that there is no coal nor any valuable mineral in my corner of Appalachia.

  7. Vicki, Virginia has largely been spared too -- there's some mountaintop removal mining in southwestern Virginia, but very little compared to West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. I'm afraid the politicians have decided that West Virginia can be sacrificed for the sake of cheap energy. The trouble is, human beings live there. People outside the region need to be aware of what's happening.