Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review: Uneven Ground

Failed Policies, Flawed Theories
And the Tragedy of Postwar Appalachia
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008
ISBN 978-0-8131-2523-7
By Ronald D. Eller

Reviewed by Kevin Barksdale
Published on H-Appalachia (March, 2009)

In Uneven Ground, historian Ronald D. Eller offers a Braudelian narrative of the social, economic, and political transformation of Appalachia after the Second World War. Focusing primarily on the relationship between relief and development efforts and the deteriorating postwar mountain communities and economy, Eller’s study stands as an indictment of failed governmental policies, faulty theories and models, and corporate greed and irresponsibility. From the acceleration of Appalachia’s postwar economy to the contemporary grassroots efforts to halt mountain-top removal mining practices, Uneven Ground covers a staggering amount of historical terrain and fills a long-overdue gap in the region’s historiography.

Uneven Ground’s six chapters are chronologically organized around the region’s most significant socioeconomic developments and challenges as well as the policies, policymakers, and organizations engaged in attempting to bring “progress” to mountain communities. Chapter 1 recounts the transformative decade following World War II in Appalachia. Eller argues that the expansion of Appalachia’s postwar economy was “flawed” and ultimately led to “growth without [infrastructural] development” (p. 11). As the coal industry boomed amid soaring markets and technological innovation, Appalachia experienced debilitating out-migration, increased absentee land ownership, environmental devastation, agricultural collapse, rising unemployment, and limited non-resource extraction economic development. Confronted with an increasingly desperate regional constituency, Appalachia’s political leadership proved ineffective in transcending the region’s corrupt “feudal political system” and providing resolutions to the systemic problems within the mountains (p. 35). The failure of native political leaders to offer solutions to rising regional poverty and economic inequality led to the widespread belief that federal intervention within the mountains was necessary to improve life in Appalachia.

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