Books & Essays
Far Appalachia: Following the New River North
Noah Adams, the amiable host of NPR's All Things Considered, is no stranger to the world beyond the Beltway; a native of Kentucky, he's logged plenty of time in wild country, and the travels he recounts in his latest book take him through some of the most rugged in the eastern United States.
Adams travels along the New River, which rises in the mountains of North Carolina, flows generally north into Virginia and West Virginia, and eventually merges with the Ohio and Mississippi. Along the way--traveling by car, bicycle, and canoe--he explains the workings of rapids, his ancestral connection to Appalachia as well as its the history, and even the origins of the term hillbilly. As he wanders, Adams points out local oddities (such as a school bus that incongruously rests on a huge boulder in the middle of a stretch of the New River) and takes in bluegrass festivals, family picnics and the occasional family feud, and little towns and large vistas, by all appearances having a grand time along the way.
Book Review #1:
In his last book (Piano Lessons), Adams described the year he decided, at age 51, to learn to play the piano. The host of NPR's All Things Considered now takes readers on another year-long journey, this time through Appalachia by canoe, bicycle and white-water raft. A native of eastern Kentucky, Adams takes a personal interest in Appalachia: "a wish to learn more about this part of the country and my family's past." Gently and thoughtfully, he does just that, covering everything from the ecosystems of the New River whole universes under the eddying water to the ghosts of the pioneers and Native Americans who roamed the riverbanks. (Curiously, despite a passing reference to a Confederate flag, Adams never mentions the Civil War or even African-Americans.) Through the people he meets along his journey including bluegrass fiddlers and fishermen, storytellers all Adams also tells a story of present-day Appalachia, a complex view that challenges Deliverance stereotypes. But challenging the reader isn't Adams's purpose; instead, in easygoing and understated prose, he takes readers up the river with him into the darkness of coal mines, down Class VI rapids and into local pubs, inns and churches. He skims lightly over the depths and navigates the rapids with humor and a sharp eye for telling detail. Indeed, some of the best passages of the book are Adams's simple descriptions of the water: "The boat rocked, then steadied, and the current caught the bow and turned it downstream. Then a touch of the paddle to add some speed. This is the moment of grace." Whether white-water rafters or just along for the ride, readers will find Adams's story of a year following the New River full of this same quiet, and often unexpected, grace. -- Publishers Weekly
Book Review #2:
"This is just a book about a river. There was no quest involved, only a wish to understand more about this part of the country and my family's past." So writes Adams, with characteristic understatement. It may lack grand purpose, but his book is a pleasure for anyone who knows the country of which he writes, and anyone who enjoys a backroad adventure. -- Gregory McNamee