One of the core concerns of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition has been and remains literacy and education for urban Appalachians. Beginning with the Urban Appalachian Council and continuing to this day, UACC works to help urban Appalachians and others to gain the literacy skills and educational credentials they need to succeed. In speaking to author and urban Appalachian Emma Carlson Berne, I learned that the drive for literacy among Appalachian people was once a dangerous but epic project, one that was achieved by the heroic efforts of young Appalachian women.
Emma Carlson Berne’s new children’s book offers a window into a feature of Appalachian life few people know anything about. The fact that young women once delivered books to families across the most remote areas of the Appalachian region is something that has all but disappeared into the mists of legend. But this is history, and it is history that is close to us. Berne’s book, Books by Horseback, illustrated by Ilaria Urbinati and published by Little Bee Books, is fiction, but the details in the book are facts. “No one wrote down the stories of these young women at the time. To get this story into a book demanded that I make something of a composite character based on the facts of the packhorse librarians,” she explained.
The book tells the story of one packhorse librarian who sets out to cross the nearly impassable mountains and ridgelines to deliver books. She faces inhospitable terrain and a looming thunderstorm to complete her journey. While this is a work of fiction for children, it is a faithful depiction of the real packhorse librarians who traveled the remote Appalachian regions to bring books to people who had no access to roads, much less libraries. The Pack Horse Library Initiative was one of many programs that were part of the Works Progress Administration and the New Deal. President Franklin Roosevelt initiated these programs as part of the plan to get people through the Great Depression which had ravaged the already poverty-stricken areas of the Appalachian region. The Pack Horse initiative relied on young women and girls who were from the Appalachian region, knew the area, and could get through impassable terrain on horseback to take books to people in the mountains. This is a heroic tale.
Emma Carlson Berne is a contract writer, and she has written many books. As she explained, “I write books on commission.” But Books by Horseback is a true labor of love. “I have always been a horse person. I worked on a horse farm for a couple of years after graduate school,” she told me. This experience and an immediate identification with the young women who rode horses through the Appalachian region made Books by Horseback a compelling project. Emma Carlson Berne’s connection to the subject of this book also comes from her own Appalachian heritage.
Berne currently lives in Wyoming with her husband and three children and is a native Cincinnatian, but her family’s roots reach into West Virginia. “My great grandfather left West Virginia and relocated the family to Dayton as part of the great migration of Appalachian people to cities to find employment,” Berne explained. This is a familiar family history, and one that links her with so many other urban Appalachians. She went on to tell me that she “spent the summer visiting family in Huntington, West Virginia. The ties to Appalachia remained alive for me.”
Emma Carlson Berne studied at the University of Wisconsin and returned to study Composition and Rhetoric at Miami University. In the course of our conversation, we found that it was quite likely we crossed paths at M.U. in the English Department. After finishing her M.A., Berne took some time to work at a horse farm and think about the prospect of continuing on with her PH.D. “I began writing professionally and found this is a way of doing what I love and making a living,” she said. Berne has written more books than I can name. I will provide a link to her website below. Emma Carlson Berne was also the Writer-in-Residence for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in 2018.
Books by Horseback and the history of the horseback librarians delve into the ways culture and literacy were fostered and transmitted among Appalachian people. While the program for the horseback librarians was part of the WPA, the young women who risked their lives to ride horses across some of the most formidable terrain in America were young Appalachian women devoted to bringing literacy to the mountains and finding ways to connect people who were isolated. It is worth noting that those who received the books by the horseback librarians repaid the efforts by inserting things like recipes and quilt patterns into the books as they moved across the Appalachian region. These gifts were often received by the next families who got books. The program and the efforts of Appalachian people connected life and culture in ways that were unforeseeable. We can thank Emma Carlson Berne for bringing this history back to life.
It is gratifying to learn that some of the work of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is part of a historical legacy that stretches across nearly one hundred years. It is equally gratifying to learn of this fact from an urban Appalachian writer right here in Cincinnati. Emma Carlson Berne’s work brings to life a feature of our history and culture that is genuinely legendary in her new book for children called Books by Horseback. As an urban Appalachian whose roots go back to West Virginia, and as a professional writer who is firmly grounded in Cincinnati, Emma Carlson Berne offers all of us, children and adults, an epic view of our Appalachian history and heritage.
Books by Horseback is available at Downbound Books, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and anyplace books are sold.
For Emma Carlson Berne’s website click here: https://emmacarlsonberne.com/about/.
To read more about the Horse Back Librarians, click here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/horse-riding-librarians-were-great-depression-bookmobiles-180963786/. Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.