With the passing of each generation, our understanding of the lives our ancestors experienced is diminished. The Harpers of Pongo Ridge is a treasure for the Appalachian people. In her book, Christine Harper McKinney shares the stories of life growing up in remote Appalachia. In this second edition of the book, 95-year-old McKinney reaches back into her lineage several generations to share how they came to the beautiful but rugged mountains. She gives vivid descriptions of Pongo and the surrounding areas. She introduces the reader to her family and the community members in a manner that is reminiscent of Jean Ritchie’s The Singing Family of the Cumberlands and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. Personal stories of the Pongo community and specific people who comprised that community are both endearing and educational.
I, too, am a product of rural Appalachia, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s as opposed to McKinney’s childhood in the 1930s and 1940s. Much of McKinney’s writing took me home. I especially loved the description of the general store being the community meeting place where the men would surround the potbellied stove, spittoon nearby, and debate the political issues at hand. References to phrases such as the “bottom land” and how the men cleared the “new ground” reintroduced terms I haven’t heard since moving away from home. And I had to chuckle when McKinney wrote that they didn’t know the definition of poverty, so “we never knew we had it.”
Images of playing on the large sandstone rocks and the magical uses of childhood imaginations are clear memories of my own growing up. When McKinney describes her father’s talent for storytelling, I immediately thought of the tall tales my granny and mom told when I was a child. I can even see this tradition in myself, as I created tales for my children.
McKinney speaks of her mother taking the children to church on Sundays when the circuit riding preacher was available. The church served not only for spiritual feeding but socializing as well. It was the most common place where people, who were spread out over the mountains, could actually meet one another.
As McKinney shares the home remedies her mother used, I couldn’t help but remember my granny sending us kids out to the hills in search of medicinal herbs. The teas were nasty to taste, but every one of us kids survived childhood. She also caused me to remember the poultices Granny would wrap my foot in after stepping on a nail in the barn. (Every child went barefoot from early spring to first frost.)
The Harpers of Pongo Ridge is full of images of life gone by, a life often forgotten in our age of “progress.” In fact, Dale Farmer, writer and director of The Mountain Minor, used McKinney’s book to authenticate small details of life for the film’s characters.
Christine Harper McKinney has filled The Harpers of Pongo Ridge with the values and traditions of our heritage: family, loyalty, humor, generosity, faith and what it means to be Appalachian. Because of this woman’s commitment to writing it down, we can be reminded of the richness and honor of being Appalachian.
The Harpers of Pongo Ridge is available on Amazon and can be ordered through your independent bookseller.
Nora Stanger is the Appalachian Outreach Coordinator at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, OH. A graduate of Berea College in Kentucky, she has spent the past 30 years promoting the richness of the Appalachian heritage and culture through public speaking and writing.