Hill Women

Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains

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After rising from poverty to earn two Ivy League degrees, an Appalachian lawyer pays tribute to the strong “hill women” who raised and inspired her, and whose values have the potential to rejuvenate a struggling region.

“Destined to be compared to Hillbilly Elegy and Educated.”—BookPage (starred review)
“Poverty is enmeshed with pride in these stories of survival.”—Associated Press

Nestled in the Appalachian mountains, Owsley County is one of the poorest counties in both Kentucky and the country. Buildings are crumbling and fields sit vacant, as tobacco farming and coal mining decline. But strong women are finding creative ways to subsist in their hollers in the hills.

Cassie Chambers grew up in these hollers and, through the women who raised her, she traces her own path out of and back into the Kentucky mountains. Chambers’s Granny was a child bride who rose before dawn every morning to raise seven children. Despite her poverty, she wouldn’t hesitate to give the last bite of pie or vegetables from her garden to a struggling neighbor. Her two daughters took very different paths: strong-willed Ruth—the hardest-working tobacco farmer in the county—stayed on the family farm, while spirited Wilma—the sixth child—became the first in the family to graduate from high school, then moved an hour away for college. Married at nineteen and pregnant with Cassie a few months later, Wilma beat the odds to finish school. She raised her daughter to think she could move mountains, like the ones that kept her safe but also isolated her from the larger world.

Cassie would spend much of her childhood with Granny and Ruth in the hills of Owsley County, both while Wilma was in college and after. With her “hill women” values guiding her, Cassie went on to graduate from Harvard Law. But while the Ivy League gave her knowledge and opportunities, its privileged world felt far from her reality, and she moved back home to help her fellow rural Kentucky women by providing free legal services.

Appalachian women face issues that are all too common: domestic violence, the opioid crisis, a world that seems more divided by the day. But they are also community leaders, keeping their towns together in the face of a system that continually fails them. With nuance and heart, Chambers uses these women’s stories paired with her own journey to break down the myth of the hillbilly and illuminate a region whose poor communities, especially women, can lead it into the future.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Hill Women

Chapter 1

The sun was directly over the Cow Creek holler, shining down onto the tobacco plants below. The summer heat was sticky, the type of heat that clings to your skin and makes your hair feel damp. I was standing in my grandparents’ tobacco field, trying to shield my eyes from the incessant sun while holding an armload of tobacco sticks.

My five-year-old body was tired. I had been up since before five a.m., when my aunt Ruth lightly shook me awake. “Time to get up, Cassie,” she’d said in a no-nonsense tone of voice. “There’s work to be done.”

That always seemed to be the case on the farm. So much work to be done.

Even at this young age, I knew I liked work—or at least that I was supposed to. Work was what kept the days full. What allowed me to bury my hands in the earth. What made me the same as my mother, my aunt Ruth, my Granny.

It didn’t hurt that my aunt Ruth gave me a dollar for each day I helped out on the farm. I’m sure I was more of a hindrance than a help, my clumsy child hands fumbling through tasks. But she was teaching me an important lesson, one that generations of mountain women have learned before me: There is value in work. Hard work pays off.

At the end of the week Aunt Ruth would take me to town. We would stop at yard sales along the main road, or perhaps wander into the Family Dollar store. I would spend my hard-earned money on a used doll or a bag of candy, or some other trinket. And, pushing my wadded-up bills across the counter, I would feel proud.

I released one tobacco stick onto the ground below and continued walking through the rows of plants, scattering the tobacco sticks as I went.

Up ahead I saw my aunt Ruth, bent over in the field. Aunt Ruth was the best tobacco worker in Owsley County. Even the men said so. She could cut more stalks per hour than the strongest man. She rarely stopped to rest.

Watching her move through the fields ahead of me, I was struck by her solidness, the strength of her body. Even then I could see that she mirrored the mountains rising up in the distance. I was also struck by her grace. The way she knew the land. The deftness and ease she carried to each task.

“How ya doin’ back there, Cassie?” she shouted from up ahead.

I was fine. I was content. I was at peace in this holler in the hills.

The sun sank toward the edge of the mountains, and our time in the fields drew to a close for the day. We made our way from the tobacco fields to the green-and-white farmhouse nestled on a nearby hill. We sat on the front porch to rest before beginning the evening chores. The porch’s tin roof was rusted, and the wooden floorboards sagged in places. The attached house looked tired, even then, edges and joints giving way. But pots of bright wildflowers sat along the front rail, their long stems woven into a net of green and color. They made the old house something alive, something beautiful. Aunt Ruth loves to plant wildflowers.

Aunt Ruth has not had an easy life. Born in 1958, she was the fourth of seven children and the firstborn girl. My mother would come along—years later. Ruth, like the rest of her siblings, began working in the tobacco fields at an early age. She liked working on the farm—liked working with the earth—and she made it a point to outwork her brothers.

She had once dreamed of something beyond the tobacco fields. She had wanted to graduate from high school—to be the first in her family to get an education. But when she was about sixteen she got rheumatic fever and had to stay home from school for a year. She had attended school sporadically before that, and, with no plan to keep current on her lessons, she felt like it would be impossible to ever catch up. She decided that she had been silly to dream of anything more.

So Ruth set out to achieve in the only way that she could: becoming the best worker in Owsley County. It was one of the few paths she had to gain recognition, to feel pride. Day after day, year after year, she worked on the farm. Cutting her hair short to keep it from matting against her neck. Wearing heavy jeans even in the summer heat. Breaking her body to contribute to her family.

Over the years her siblings moved off of the farm, got married, started families of their own in other parts of Owsley County. Ruth remained behind. She knew that her aging parents couldn’t manage the farm without her. She knew that she was the best worker in the family. She knew it was her job to keep the farm afloat.

That’s not an easy thing to do as a sharecropper. Our family didn’t own the land we worked—we never did. We rented the house, the barns, the fields, from the Reed family. At the end of each planting season, we gave half of the tobacco earnings to the Reeds for rent. If it was a good year, my family may have gotten to keep a little less than ten thousand dollars. The constant repairs to the house, need for new farm equipment, and other daily expenses depleted that money quickly. Aunt Ruth took on odd jobs—mowing lawns for neighbors and washing cars in town—to help make ends meet.

After we sat on the porch for a bit, Aunt Ruth stood up and told me it was time for chores. I scampered behind her to the barns, where we tended to the animals. More accurately, Aunt Ruth tended to the animals while I tried to track down the newest litter of barn kittens. One of the old barn cats had given birth earlier that week, and she kept moving her kittens from place to place, probably to keep them safe from my unwanted cooing and petting.

I loved the smell of the barn. Even now I can smell it if I close my eyes, the scent of cool and earth and animal.

The sun had barely set when it was time to get ready for bed. There was no indoor plumbing, so I used well water to brush my teeth and wash my dirt-covered body the best I could. Every few days Aunt Ruth filled up a tin tub with hot water so I could take a bath.

Aunt Ruth walked with me to the outhouse and shone a flashlight inside the lopsided hut before I went in. The other day, Granny had said that the neighbors found a black snake in their outhouse. The thought of a snake—even a harmless black snake—lurking in the dark terrified me. Aunt Ruth put a big bucket in the house for us to use as a nighttime toilet so no one had to trek to the outhouse in the pitch dark.

That night I crawled into bed next to Aunt Ruth. She told me stories about the haunted holler, and our kinfolk, and the mountain people. Storytelling is an art in the mountains, a way of transmitting history, culture, and shared experience from generation to generation. She told me stories about my mother as a child, the ghosts in the woods, and quick-witted hill people. I listened raptly to her yarns until my eyes grew heavy and my lashes knitted together.

I would spend several more nights here, in Owsley County, that week. I would probably spend several nights the next week. Both my mother and father were students, young parents, struggling to build a better life for me. They couldn’t afford childcare, and there was nowhere I would rather be than this patch of earth in the mountains. I often came for a week at a time; my mother says that, as a young child, there were periods when I was here more than anywhere else. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t frequently running through the Cow Creek holler.

And I rarely ran alone. There was a slew of kids to get into trouble with. My cousins—Melissa, Ben, and Dustin—are all around the same age as me, and our family relationship mandated that we become friends. Family was important—all of our parents believed so, and they made sure we spent time together, “gettin’ to know your kinfolk,” as Granny liked to say.

Melissa, just a few months older than me, was my best friend. We would catch crawdads in the creek and play with dolls in the living room. The boys, Ben and Dustin, would drive us crazy with their wild antics and roughhousing ways. Even as young children they were taught to embody a type of tough masculinity that drew suspicious glances from us girls. We would sneak off into the fields to pick wildflowers and hide when we heard them coming.

Aunt Ruth was often charged with supervising us. She had a matter-of-fact approach to life and childcare. “Well, of course that dog bit you,” she once told a crying Ben. “I told you not to pull his ears. That’ll teach you not to bother that dog no more.” She raised her eyebrows at him and went back to work. She was a busy woman, doing what it took to keep the remaining family afloat. She didn’t have time to fuss over us, and she believed that children learned from the natural consequences of their actions. But we never doubted that she loved us something fierce.

- About the author -

Cassie Chambers grew up in eastern Kentucky. She graduated from Yale College, the Yale School of Public Health, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School, where she was president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a student-run law firm that represents low-income clients. Chambers then received a Skadden Fellowship to return to Kentucky to do legal work with domestic violence survivors in rural communities. In 2018, she helped pass Jeanette’s Law, which eliminated the requirement that domestic violence survivors pay an incarcerated spouse’s legal fees in order to get a divorce. She lives in Louisville with her husband and their son.

More from Cassie Chambers

Hill Women

Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains

Buy

Hill Women

— Published by Ballantine Books —