Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, to both urban parents, I had no concept of “rural” until my brother went to college. I was 7 or 8 when I accompanied him and my parents on the trip to State College, to have Roger moved into the dorm and started as a freshman at Penn State University.
It was the first and last road trip I did with my parents, and also the first time Dad needed a map to take us somewhere. (Not that he ever used it.)
He preferred the less traveled roads. Once in Pennsylvania from the old Route 22, we passed a farm here and there, scenic landscapes and the occasional small town, some without stop lights.
Most of the time, I remember barns with homemade signs that shouted “Impeach Earl Warren.” There were also intermittent signs that said ‘Chew Mail Pouch’ which confused me because I interpreted that to mean that a person should chew on the leather bag the postman was carrying.
As a child of the burbs, the notion of chewing tobacco – and other aspects of rural life – was foreign to me.
A recent “Daily Yonder” article titled Rural Literature Educator Helps Teachers Connect Students to Their Roots sparked these memories because it explored the connections between our perceptions of where we come from, versus how outsiders view our world.
Recently, at Kentucky’s other MSU, Morehead State, education students in Ph.D. Alison Hruby’s English Education class revealed they were ashamed of their rural roots, even though many would return to teach there after obtaining their diploma. To address these sentiments, virtual guest speaker Chea Parton, Ph.D., shared information about her project, Literacy in Place, which promotes the expansion of literature programs to include works that speak directly to young people. rural students in middle and high school classes.
According to Hruby, “Even though she only spoke to my students for an hour, she already blew them away.”
The reaction made me curious about other readers’ ideas, so I posted the Daily Yonder article on Facebook and got a response from Linda Hunt Bartnik, a retired Murray State University librarian by profession. . She checked Parton’s website and scanned his playlists of rural-related titles that project positive images.
“All of them were books written after my youth had long expired,” admitted Bartnik.
She also recalled reading Jesse Stuart short stories in college and quoting the hillbilly dialogue. “I was embarrassed by the possibility of me speaking like that,” she said.
Upon reflection, I realized that many of my childhood favorites – the Little House series, Anne of Green Gables, The Yearling, Red Pony – had rural settings quite different from my home territory. In my memory, rural characters were noble, hard-working, sensible, and resourceful. They also endured hardship with as much dignity and stoicism as they could, like the family in The Yearling.
As I got older and my interests became more sophisticated, I came across Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, which was about the loss and tragedy of an immigrant family from Norway who settled in rural Dakota. And then there was Conrad Richter’s Sea of Grass, which depicted the inevitable conflicts between farmers and cattle herders in a vast, ever-flowing rural prairie that could drive a transplanted city-dweller into infidelity.
While I understand that some people in rural areas are uncomfortable with the stereotypes promulgated in literature and the media about their territory, others revel in them, including the portrayals in “The Dukes of Hazzard or “Beverly Hillbillies”.
As a transplant from New Jersey to Kentucky, I confess to being uncomfortable with stereotypes associated with my home state, such as this site that insists on naming 10 “absolutely true” stereotypes about the Garden State. There is one, however, that I find to be accurate, and that is: give us dinner and a Dunkin’ Donuts and we’re set for life.
As the Morehead students reflected on conflicting feelings about their rural roots, I hope they took the time to revisit George Ella Lyon, former Kentucky Poet Laureate, and her “Where I’m From” project. . Lyon, a native of Appalachia, celebrated his roots in a poem known around the world as he praises the simple things that make his rural home special.
It begins with these memorable lines:
I come from clothespins,
Clorox and carbon tetrachloride
I come from the dirt under the back porch
it tasted like beets)
The Daily Yonder is essential reading for those with rural roots, as well as those seeking information on rural issues that resists stereotypes. Covering news and analysis of crucial topics such as agriculture, broadband and technology, health, arts, politics, tribal affairs and more, it offers free newsletter subscriptions and a weekly podcast.