Meredith McCarroll, a Bowdoin College professor, editor and writer, at Baxter Woods in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Meredith McCarroll is a long day’s drive from home, but the distance feels impossibly long during these days of isolation. McCarroll, director of writing at Bowdoin College, grew up in Waynesville, North Carolina, a small town in the Blue Ridge mountains. She loves Maine and appreciates her Portland neighborhood, but the pandemic has heightened her sense of separation from family and friends.

“I feel a strong pull to be there generally, but especially during these uncertain times. I keep feeling the need to go to the mountains, to set my eyes on them and breathe them in,” McCarroll said in an interview last week. “When I am able to go home, we will load up the car and head to Waynesville. We have been tempted to go, and have thought about taking two weeks worth of stuff so we can quarantine there. But it became clear they don’t want us to travel, and we will follow those rules.”

Those mountains are where she feels most safe and grounded, when everything else feel unsettled.

During her time at Bowdoin, McCarroll, 43, has become a voice for those mountains. She and an academic colleague edited a collection of essays called “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.” The book, published a year ago, is, as its title suggests, a rigorous and angry retort to the 2016 high-profile memoir by J.D. Vance and the “long shadow” he cast on the region with his writing. McCarroll was compelled to respond to Vance’s best-selling book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” because she felt it painted an incomplete picture of the region.

“Appalachian Reckoning,” co-edited by Meredith McCarroll, is a strong retort to J.D. Vance.

In his writing, Vance describes his family’s Appalachian roots in unflattering ways and generally blames hillbilly culture on society’s downfall. Conservatives loved it, liberals dismissed it and Ron Howard made it into a movie, which was scheduled to be released this year but may be pushed into 2021.

McCarroll collaborated with Anthony Harkins, a historian from Western Kentucky University, on the response. They recruited writers and artists from across the region to express their culture through essays, poetry, photography and other means. It was McCarroll’s second book about Appalachia. In 2018, the University of Georgia Press published McCarroll’s “Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film” about how people from the region have been portrayed in film. She’s at work on another book, a still-evolving rumination on home and friendship, which grew from processing her mother’s recent illness and death.

But it was “Appalachian Reckoning” that established McCarroll as a strong, contemporary advocate for the mountains. She and Harkins recruited a wide cast of contributors in an attempt to present an array of thoughts and experiences to contrast with Vance’s singular view. “It was important for me not necessarily to reclaim a narrative but to complicate a narrative. I felt that one person was telling his story but speaking for a lot of people, and I knew that his story was true for some but not true for all. And so I wanted to just complicate and pluralize the narrative that he was claiming as the story about Appalachia,” she said.

“Appalachian Reckoning” succeeded because it created conversations across the country about the depth and diversity of the region, said Chuck Reece, editor-in-chief of the Georgia-based online culture magazine The Bitter Southerner. He recently featured McCarroll on one of his podcasts and has highlighted the book since its publication. He applauded McCarroll for calling out Vance and speaking up against parachute journalism.

“I love that book so much, if I had the money I would mail it to folks myself who need to read it,” Reece said.

And who needs to read it?

“People who have no direct experience of Appalachia on their own, especially if they have preconceived ideas that color their perceptions of the region,” he said. “The stereotype of Appalachia in popular image is too much along the lines of what J.D. Vance describes in his book, that they are lazy, shiftless and not just incapable of making a living for themselves when a company is not there to employ them, but too unwilling or lazy to make their own way. The opposite is true and always will be.”

It’s a hard stereotype to fight, he said, because it’s widely prevalent across all media – except, he noted, in John Prine songs. McCarroll and Harkins debunked the easy and inaccurate narrative by mixing storytelling with scholarship to tell a progressive, vital and hopeful story of the region full of wit, humor and insight.

Reece is particularly pleased with McCarroll’s work because he grew up in north Georgia, about 100 miles as a crow flies from Waynesville, and is accustomed to dealing with people’s perceptions of Appalachia. He lived for many years in New York, and felt judged because of his accent. To his new New York City acquaintances, Reece’s twang equaled dumb, backwards or worse. Out of that anger, he started The Bitter Southerner.

McCarroll came to his attention a few years ago when she wrote an essay for Southern Cultures magazine about her accent that made Reece laugh. He wrote her a note congratulating her on the piece, and told her she could write for him anytime.

Last year, she wrote an essay for The Bitter Southerner about the process of pulling together “Appalachian Reckoning” and included an excerpt from the book. “The package was far and away the most widely read thing we published last year,” Reece said.

McCarroll has been at Bowdoin five years. She was teaching at Clemson University in South Carolina when she saw an ad for the position at Bowdoin and thought, “Why not? That could be a fun adventure.”

She visited campus in March 2015, during a snowy winter. She’s from the mountains of North Carolina, so the snow didn’t bother her. What intimidated her was the idea of a private school. “That was very different than anything I had ever experienced, but I was blown away by the faculty and how much they cared about the students and the small, close-knit sense of community that I sensed there,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”

And as much as she yearns for the mountains of home, she feels rooted in Maine, at Bowdoin and in Portland. She and her husband, the musician Jeff Christmas, have made their lives here, and the coronavirus has heightened those Maine connections just as they’ve heightened her longing for home. What the virus has taught her, among other things, is that she can love where she lives and feel an unyielding link to the place she was raised and where her heart still rests.

That’s the tension that she and others who are separated from lifelong friends and families wrestle with with these days. Until she can get in the car and travel freely, she will settle for online video chats. Somehow, those video chats feel strangely satisfying. “I think that we have this new opportunity to build community with someone a thousand miles away as easily as the person a block away. It’s interesting, though not surprising, that I have turned to these 43-year-old friendships,” she wrote in a follow-up email.

She will go home again. She’s already half way there in her mind.

“As soon as I drive across this one spot on I-40, across Black Mountain where the Blue Ridge opens up in front of me, I feel something akin to walking into the front door of the house I grew up in or being wrapped in my mama’s hug,” she wrote. “It is home in a deep and unspeakable way. Something settles in me in the mountains and reminds me that I have a home. These days, the need for that reminder is strong for all of us.”


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