During my lifetime, the people of Appalachia have become more self aware. Jesse Stuart, Cratis Williams, Billy C. Clark, Harry M. Caudill, and hundreds of other Appalachian writers and teachers have helped us achieve a clearer understanding of ourselves, our families, and our communities.
The by-products of that self-awareness touch every phase of our lives. In the last two decades, for example, I have read more and more memoirs by people who would not have had the inclination or courage to write them fifty years ago. Many of these Appalachian memoirs, like the currently popular “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance, focus primarily on the negative aspects of Appalachian life. In sharp contrast, Bob Barnett’s book, “Growing Up in the Last Small Town: A West Virginia Memoir,” is an excellent counterbalance to Vance’s book. Barnett’s memoir is a “Happy Days” version of Appalachia that is true to life for many people who grew up in our region’s small towns.
This memoir is a humorous and poignant account of the early life of retired Marshall University professor Bob Barnett, a self-described “bad student and undersized athlete” coming of age in the 1950s. In some ways, it is also the story of all of us who grew up in a small town between 1940 and 1960.
For Bob and the other children in the unincorporated pottery town of Newell, West Virginia, it was a time of simple pleasures: shedding winter coats on the first day of spring, playing baseball until dark, watching four-hour children’s matinees on Saturday afternoon, and breaking plates in the town dump, their favorite playground. It was a time when getting the right date for the prom was more important than the election of the president.
Barnett’s book captures the rhythm of small-town life that we thought would never change. But change came quickly. In the 1950s, as many of us remember, television became a staple of modern life, offering Elvis, the evening news, and a vivid view of our changing world. School consolidations robbed towns of their souls, supermarkets eliminated the need for corner grocery stores, and the closings of mills and factories brought an end to small towns as we knew them.
In the tradition of some of West Virginia’s excellent memoir writers, including Homer Hickam, Jeanette Walls, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., John O’Brien and Edwina Pendarvis, Bob Barnett captures the bittersweet experience of small-town life.
Barnett is a lifelong resident of West Virginia. He taught sports history for 35 years at Marshall University, and has written more than 300 articles, for a wide variety of periodicals and journals, including “Saturday Evening Post,” “Sports Heritage Magazine,” West Virginia’s “Goldenseal Magazine,” and the “Dallas Cowboy News.”
Barnett married his high school girlfriend, Liz Arner. The Barnetts once lived in Huntington, and now reside in Sarasota, Florida. Readers of The Daily Independent will remember Lysbeth Barnett from her years of teaching at Ashland Community College.
Regional Readers is open to all and visitors and new members are always welcome. The group meets the last Tuesday of the month — March through November — at 4:45 pm in the JSF Conference Room.
DR. JAMES GIFFORD, Ph.D., is the CEO and Senior Editor at the Jesse Stuart Foundation.