Everyone has a story tell, the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Story Gathering Project would like to hear that story and document it. Melinda Grisco is an urban Appalachian who has quite a few stories to tell. Her story is archived in the Story Gathering Project, and she is a professional storyteller with a new children’s book out that is set in Appalachia. I got the opportunity to talk to Melinda Grisco about her urban Appalachian experiences growing up in Cincinnati and about her new book, Strawberries of the Road: From the Hills of West Virginia.

Melinda Grisco grew up in Madisonville in the 1960s. She told me that the neighborhood at the time “was largely poor white and poor black. You were one or the other.” She also explained that she did not have a sense of being Appalachian as a child, but she also knew that most kids around her had family in places like West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee. As she said, “my grandpa was still in West Virginia, and I remember noticing that everyone around me had parents who were from some part of Appalachia.” An awareness of being urban Appalachian came later in life.

In many ways, Melinda Grisco embodies the urban Appalachian experience of today, and the genesis of her book fits into this narrative. Grisco’s family is from Mingo County, West Virginia. She recounts her memories of this, and those passed along by her mother and father. She remembers her mother telling her the decision to leave what had become a severely economically depressed area was motivated by a desire for a better life for the children. In her interview on the Story Gathering Project, Melinda Grisco further explains that after World War II, her father returned to the area but “the creek was polluted, the area was poor, and my mom didn’t want her daughters growing up in such a place.” You can watch the complete interview conducted by Corrine Stanforth on the Story Gathering Project Archive. The link is below.

Grisco fondly remembers visiting her grandfather in West Virginia as a child: “I loved being there,” she said, “There was a farmhouse, woods, and a creek—I loved visiting the little general store and buying Nehi like it was an exotic treat.” But Grisco further explains, “my mother would never let my dad take me and my sisters back to West Virginia by himself. She worried about the town and the potential dangers there.” These kinds of mixed feelings and even mixed blessings are not uncommon among urban Appalachians in Cincinnati. The feelings of being pulled back to a rural, small-town world of simplicity is frequently tempered with the realities of the ways the Appalachian region has been ravaged by corporate exploitation and neglect.

These days, Melinda Grisco is a teacher’s assistant at the Springer School and a professional storyteller. She takes these stories to schools, assisted living homes, and other places where the gift of stories lift people’s spirits and imaginations. With these experiences, Melinda Grisco is also an author. Her book, Strawberries of the Road: From the Hills of West Virginia, draws on both her knowledge and experience of being an urban Appalachian and her own family history. “My dad used to tell me this story, and I decided to write it for a children’s book,” she told me.

Melinda Grisco gave me some background on the genesis of her book. “My dad told me all kinds of stories: stories from home and even tales of his time during the war.” Grisco told a friend about her idea for the book who challenged her by saying: If you write it, I’ll illustrate it.” That friend is Beverly Conner who did in fact beautifully illustrate the book, and her illustration style is woven into the telling of the tale.

Grisco’s book tells the story of a poor mountain family. Scraping to get by after the death of their coal miner grandfather, they happen upon some rotten strawberries that had fallen from a garbage truck. With true mountain foresight and ingenuity, they plant the seeds, raise a crop of fresh strawberries, and turn that crop into products that could be sold to provide for the family. It is a tale of one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but it is also a tale of Appalachian survival and those old-fashioned virtues of make do and make your own. The narrative moves from misfortune to overcoming adversity, and the illustrations subtly change from stark black and white to full color. One may see a reference to the cinematic effects from The Wizard of Oz, but this book owes more to metaphors of darkness and light, deprivation and creation, the dull present and a future that is there to be created. Perhaps most significant about Grisco’s book is that it is rooted in her own Appalachian family history and given to her in the oral tradition that is intrinsically part of Appalachian culture; the story truly does have its origins in the hills of West Virginia. From the tall tales she heard from her father, to her own path as an urban Appalachian storyteller, to a children’s book, Strawberries of the Road: From the Hills of West Virginia emerges from the living narrative of urban Appalachians.

Strawberries of the Road: From the Hills of West Virginia, by Melinda Grisco and illustrated by Beverly Conner, is available on Amazon.com. The book is also available at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. You can watch Corinne Stanforth’s interview with Melinda Grisco at the Urban Appalachian Community Coalitions Story Gathering Project Archive.

Corrine Stanforth’s interview with Melinda Grisco can be found at this link: https://youtu.be/R5Hh8xisMPg.

Information about the Story-Gathering Project and how to participate is at this link: https://uacvoice.org/storygathering/.

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press. 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.

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