One of my favorite books of 2018 was Tara Westover’s Educated. It’s still one of my favorite memoirs. So when I heard about Hill Women by Cassie Chambers, I knew I had to read it. Both of them are about women who grew up poor and grew up to be strong, educated women. Which is something I’ve learned I really enjoy reading.
(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)
Nestled in the Appalachian mountains, Owsley County is one of the poorest counties in both Kentucky and the country. Buildings are crumbling and fields sit vacant, as tobacco farming and coal mining decline. But strong women are finding creative ways to subsist in their hollers in the hills.
Cassie Chambers grew up in these hollers and, through the women who raised her, she traces her own path out of and back into the Kentucky mountains. Chambers’s Granny was a child bride who rose before dawn every morning to raise seven children. Despite her poverty, she wouldn’t hesitate to give the last bite of pie or vegetables from her garden to a struggling neighbor. Her two daughters took very different paths: strong-willed Ruth—the hardest-working tobacco farmer in the county—stayed on the family farm, while spirited Wilma—the sixth child—became the first in the family to graduate from high school, then moved an hour away for college. Married at nineteen and pregnant with Cassie a few months later, Wilma beat the odds to finish school. She raised her daughter to think she could move mountains, like the ones that kept her safe but also isolated her from the larger world.
Cassie would spend much of her childhood with Granny and Ruth in the hills of Owsley County, both while Wilma was in college and after. With her “hill women” values guiding her, Cassie went on to graduate from Harvard Law. But while the Ivy League gave her knowledge and opportunities, its privileged world felt far from her reality, and she moved back home to help her fellow rural Kentucky women by providing free legal services.
Appalachian women face issues that are all too common: domestic violence, the opioid crisis, a world that seems more divided by the day. But they are also community leaders, keeping their towns together in the face of a system that continually fails them. With nuance and heart, Chambers uses these women’s stories paired with her own journey to break down the myth of the hillbilly and illuminate a region whose poor communities, especially women, can lead it into the future.
I love reading memoirs about strong women, and Hill Women was a great one. I went into this book thinking it was going to be about how big of an impact education can have on women in poor communities. And it definitely did was, at least in part. But it was so much more. Seeing how these women lived had a huge impact on me. I was hugely impressed by how strong they were (and are).
I think this is an important and timely book because it gives a lot of insight into how poor people, especially in Appalachia live and think. Their values, for example, are probably different from a lot of ours. I’ve talked before about how reading books that expose us to the experiences of others is important. It broadens our worldview, and Hill Women definitely did that for me.
If I’m being honest, this book took me a bit to get into. The writing didn’t immediately grab me. But about halfway through, I found myself becoming more and more invested in the lives of this family. While the story wasn’t exactly exciting to read, it was enjoyable. I think Cassie Chambers had an important story to tell, and she told it well.
★★★★☆ – I really enjoyed Hill Women. Learning about how women in poor communities lived made a pretty big impact on me. I believe it’s very important to gain understanding of how other people live, and I think this book is a great way to do it. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Educated, I would still recommend it for fans of Tara Westover’s book.
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This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
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