Hidden history

One of the most enjoyable things I do in my job is writing book reviews for Library Journal. LJ is a publication for libraries and librarians, with a few articles and a ton of book reviews. If a library is considering purchase of a book for the collection, the LJ review is a handy tool to determine whether the book is worth buying or not.

I don’t get paid for it, but I do receive a pre-publication copy of the book. I’ve gotten some great books this way. I’ve also gotten a few that weren’t so great, but just a few.

The most recent one was fascinating. I’m not allowed to give any details about it or even much of a synopsis yet – but it struck a chord in me.

One of the subject areas in which I review is Appalachia. I was born and raised in West Virginia, as was my dad and his parents and their parents, several generations back. When I was a kid, our family vacations were mostly spent in the mountains, camping, hiking and fishing. One of the places that we went was Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I have a picture of my mom, my sister and me at a picnic table on Skyline Drive, the road that winds around the tops of the mountains through the park.

The book I was sent to review is about the formation of Shenandoah National Park. I had always been under the impression that the National Parks were formed to preserve wilderness. Yellowstone, the first of the National Parks, was formed for that reason, as were many of the parks in the west.

What I learned from this book was that Shenandoah was a different story. It wasn’t wilderness – at least not to the people who lived there. Thousands of families were displaced by the federal and state government so that their land could be included in the park. Most of them took the money the government offered – often nowhere near the actual value of the farms – and moved. Some elderly residents were allowed to stay. Some refused to leave and were arrested; some had their homes burned so they couldn’t return.

This was happening in the 1930s for the most part, during the worst of the Depression. Imagine being told you had to leave your ancestral home, everything you’d worked to build, and been given a few thousand dollars to start over. Where would you go? What would you do?

The story was especially poignant because of another book I’m reading now, called The Highland Clearances. In the early 1800s, after the formation of the United Kingdom and the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland, the English and lowland Scots began systematically removing the Highlanders, most of whom were tenant farmers, from their homes. Some were arrested, some were burned out. The reason was that the absentee landowners wanted to make more money by introducing sheep. So they kicked the Highlanders out and moved the sheep in.

One hundred years later, the same thing happened again. The state of Virginia wanted to make more money by introducing tourists. So they kicked the people of the Shenandoah Mountains out and moved the tourists in.

None of my direct ancestors were involved in either of these events – my Scots ancestors were already in the US by the time the Highland Clearances were happening, and my Appalachian ancestors were safely to the west of the Shenandoah range. But, as I was reading both books, I found that I was taking it personally.

Those weren’t my people, but they very easily could have been.

I haven’t written my review of the book yet. I have to wait a few days, to allow a more objective mindset to prevail. Because right now, I’m kinda mad.



Filed under Books

2 responses to “Hidden history

  1. Jennifer Vranek

    Fascinating stories, both. Did you read Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment series? She alludes to the burning out of the highlanders, and I’ve wanted to read up on that history. I also thought of Ty from the Cut and Run series in thinking about your West Virginia heritage and the creation of Shenandoah. I’m a Virginian, and had no idea about that history. Let us know when you can share the names of these books!

    • I haven’t read Joanna Chambers, although I’ve seen her books. I’ll have to check them out. The book about the Clearances is an old one that I found at a used bookstore, not long ago; it’s called The Highland Clearances, by John Prebble. The one about Shenandoah will be out in February, I think, and I’ll be allowed to identify it then.

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