11 December 2013


How do we like our poor people in America? We like them rich. There is this ill conceived notion that with a little pluck and some hard work, we will never be poor again. We can get over it. Wear a green ribbon on our lapel to indicate we are a survivor of poverty. Poverty, however, is complicated. It is not a disease that can be cured with two aspirin.

We don't carefully examine poverty. There is little art about poverty. Art happens in big cities, created by people with the time to make art, and championed by people with money to buy art. In America, issues are often confronted in popular culture. Today, our popular culture is riddled with wealth. There are no poor people on television. Cops, waitresses, and UPS drivers all have their own homes or live alone in huge loft apartments. The last authentic working class family on television belonged to Roseanne. For years we watched as their family robbed Peter to pay Paul. After years of struggle, Roseanne won the lottery and became rich. She can now wear her "poverty survivor" green ribbon.

Oprah was poor, but she worked hard and now she is a billionaire. Get her and emerald studded ribbon.

Anyone can grow up to be President. Look at Congress and see if you can find a single poor person. Look again and see if you can find anyone who is not a millionaire. No ribbons here.
The WPA documented poverty in America. Today we view the Migrant Mother as an masterpiece, beautiful and evocative of the past. It is a truly iconic image of America. Most people would recognize the photo. Many people can name its photographer, Dorothea Lange. Very few could tell you the name of the woman in the photo, Florence Thompson. There are millions of Florence Thompson's in America trying to feed their children. Like the woman in the Dorothea Lange photograph, we rarely know nor care what her name is.

46.5 million American live in poverty. They are not all stupid or lazy. They are not all illiterate or crazy. They are not all criminals or drug addicts. They are employed, many work several jobs. They are fiercely loyal to family and to home. They go to church, they go to work, they go to school, and they persevere at all costs. Where are their voices?

One place to hear them speak is in the writing of Scott McClanahan. McClanahan's Crapalachia is gracing many an independent "Best of 2013" list, and well it should. Truth be told, it should be on every award list this year. Subtitled, A Biography of a Place, Crapalachia takes the reader to McClanahan's West Virginia. A small town in a rural place, scared by coal and violence, and overflowing with love and imagination.

The young Scott McClanahan lives with his grandmother, Ruby, and her son Nathan. Nathan is grown man relegated to the life of a child. His cerebral palsy has confined him to a wheelchair, a feeding tube, and his mother's house. It doesn't stop him from trying to get his nephew to slip him a beer through his feeding tube or to help him with a personal ad. Of his grandmother McClanahan writes:

"She knew how to do all kinds of things no one else knew how to do...She knew how to make biscuits from scratch and slaughter a hawg if she had to. And she knew knew how to do things that are all forgotten now --things that people from Ohio buy because it says handmade on the tag. I looked at the quilt she was working on. The quilt wasn't a fucking symbol of anything, It was something she made to keep her children warm, Remember that. Fuck symbols."

After moving in with a friend as he tries to finish school. His friend, Bill, rails against homosexuality after catching a cousin engaged in the act and quotes Leviticus. McClanahan reminds him that such behavior tends to run in families and all this talk of the Old Testament make him sound Jewish. Then one day he sets up and email account: ourlordandsavior@hotmail and sends Bill an e-mail:

"Dear Bill:
This is the lord...I am disappointed in your recent conversion to Judaism...
P.S. Please quit skipping school so much."

Bill is a bit surprised to get an e-mail from Jesus.


Unlike some of his friends, McClanahan finishes school. Like may people who grew up in small towns, he left for the big city. But he comes back and he writes a biography of this place.

"I tried to remember all of the people and phantoms I had ever known and loved. I tried to make them laugh and dance, move and dream, love and see...but I couldn't."

It is cliché to say a book is a roller coaster ride. Crapalachia is big old Tilt-A-Whirl of a book, spinning you one way, then the other. It leaves you dizzy and exhilarated and a bit nauseous and wondrously happy. Crapalachia is funny. At times you will laugh out loud. Crapalachia is painful. So painful that at times you will want to stop reading. Don't. Keep reading. Read everything Scott McClanahan writes.


1 comment:

  1. Lucinda, you are a marvel. What a wonderful post you have written here. I've been reading you for a long while and am so grateful for all your wit, humor and insight. Thank you so much for shining a light on such an important topic and such important people.

    I've been thinking of this subject daily as Christmas approaches and my yearly musing...."what's all this crap about?" Crapalachia will be on the top of my reading list...and I never would have know of it, save for you, dear. Thank you.


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