Too often the Appalachian experience—like so many marginalized American experiences—is trivialized and caricatured, and unfortunately, the literary world is no stranger to such practices. Local color writing introduced 19th-century Americans to the hillbilly bumpkin, a stereotype that pervades popular culture to this day. And thanks to Deliverance, Appalachia is also thought of as a region littered with hidden dangers. A lonesome traveler, according to fictional accounts, could find themselves interacting with a toothless, tobacco-spitting stranger harboring violent intentions. That’s why I approached John Yount’s Hardcastle 2014 reprint—courtesy of Open Road Media—with skepticism. Dialogue like “Got some white here that’ll keep the cold out if ye’ve a mind,” and an early reference to “mountain people,” had me convinced that I was reading a novel trying too hard to establish its authenticity (because what’s more authentic than highly stylized dialogue meant to capture the mountain folk dialect?). But I read on, and then I read again.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Hardcastle is an important novel reintroduced at just the right time.
Hardcastle tells the story of Bill Music, a young man in search of the American dream, and explores the search for self and home in a Kentucky coalmining town during the Great Depression. The novel is framed by a summer day in 1979, when, at the age of 67, Bill Music finds himself “out of kilter . . . and even a little mislaid in time.” Soon we’re transported back to 1931 as Music limps his way home to Virginia. He finds himself in Switch County, Kentucky, where he takes lodging with Ella and Regus Bone, a mother-son combo never short on hospitality. With Regus’ help and a desire not to return home beaten, Music hires on as a mine guard with the Hardcastle Coal Company. While carrying out his duties, he meets Merlee Taylor, a young, widowed mother whose husband was killed by a previous mine guard, or as she calls them, a “company goon.” Music starts to question his occupation and loyalty to Hardcastle Coal, and eventually both he and Regus are faced with a decision: which side will they choose?
As storytelling goes, Hardcastle has plenty of momentum to keep readers turning the pages, but don’t be fooled, this is also a novel rich with layers. Yount continually hits his stride at the sentence level when painting Appalachia. Soon after landing in Switch County, Music takes a moment to observe the landscape: “There was a field yet green on his right with long beige grasses at its edge, swirled and cow-licked by the wind. Some of the trees still held color, some were bare; already the unrelinquished leaves of the oaks were brown. Up the mountains toward the tops of hogbacks and ridges, there were laurel thickets and pines, the green of them deep and lusterless against the pale blue sky.” Descriptions are judicious and evocative, rarely falling into the typical rendering of Appalachia even when depicting the most impoverished aspects. Sure, we get our fill of suffering and shanties and tobacco spit, but Yount’s writing is warm and generous, so full of life, avoiding the hillbilly caricatures all too common in fictional accounts of Appalachia.
There are also the underlying themes of love and friendship in the face of hardship, and at the heart of the novel, the quest to find one’s place—the true American dream. Young Music’s failed search for financial success and independence proves to be something much more—the ability to clearly define home or, as the older Music suggests: “home is simply not a place after all, but a time, and when it’s gone, it’s gone forever.” The novel is clearly interested in how we define “self” in relation to others and to place. While these are some of the reasons I returned to Hardcastle a second time, they aren’t the main ones.
I came back again because the novel asks us to consider the relationship between person and occupation, particularly labor-relations and exploitation in America. Like all novels, Hardcastle doesn’t offer an answer or solution, but it does ask us to consider a coalminer’s lived experience during a time in which wages were paid in script only redeemable at the company store. Furthermore, we’re offered a grim view of capitalism’s power structure: “It was always the miner who had to sneak about being careful not to be seen, who had to avoid the public way. Men with badges traveled the highroad and came right up in your face, not from a lack of imagination, but because they had everything on their side: the legal rights, the power, the gall.” The coalminers are placed in stark opposition to the man they work for, Kenton Hardcastle. The coalminers’ meager existence depends on their labor, while Hardcastle profits from the deadly, backbreaking work of others.
Thirty-five years after its original publication, and eighty-four years after the story’s setting, Hardcastle keeps the plight of an already marginalized region and its people in full view. Most importantly, the novel entertains issues playing out in larger conversations throughout the country: the value of labor, the meaning that gets assigned to an occupation, and the definition of “self” in a system that arbitrarily assigns value to human life.
Review of Hardcastle by John Yount
Open Road Integrated Media