Monday, December 23, 2019

Hill Women - Cassie Chambers

Never underestimate a mountain woman.

Cassie Chambers grew up in the second poorest county in the entire United States, Owsley County, Kentucky. And she did it when the county was suffering the worst of times because of the duel decline of the two industries that had sustained life in Owsley County for generations: coal and tobacco. Without a market for coal and tobacco, there were very few jobs to be had in the county, especially jobs that payed anything even close to a living wage. Chambers, though, found her way out of Owsley County, and today the Harvard Law graduate whose firm offers free services to indigent Kentucky women, is even a member of the Democratic National Committee. And she knows exactly to whom she owes her success: the generations of strong women who preceded her.

Cassie’s story begins with her grandmother, a woman whose belief in hard work and family was passed down to her children (four boys and two girls), including Cassie’s mother, Wilma, and her mother’s older sister, Ruth. Wilma, certainly no stranger to hard work, would go on to become the first in her family to graduate from high school, as well as from college, something she achieved when Cassie was five years old. The women in Cassie’s family led by example, and Wilma’s acquisition of a college degree despite the tremendous odds against her made it plain to Cassie that her mother placed great value on education. As Cassie put it, by “graduating with her degree, my mother changed both of our lives.”

Cassie Chambers
The most remarkable thing about Cassie Chambers is not what she achieved academically and after graduation - it is that she so willingly gives back to the community and culture from which she came. But even that did not come easy for her because of the difficulties she faced while trying to live in two cultures at the same time. The more she fit in at Yale and Harvard, the more comfortable she felt in those worlds, the less she fit in back in the Kentucky mountains she had left behind. Ultimately, the author came to understand that not everyone can or even should leave the mountains, that the people there are “connected to the land and to each other in a deep and meaningful way.” The mountain communities are worth saving, and she is doing her best to make sure that those who do stay in them are getting all the help they need and deserve.

Perhaps the biggest compliment ever paid to Cassie Chambers came from her Aunt Ruth one day after Cassie asked if her aunt still considered her to be a hillbilly. “You’re not anymore,” her aunt replied, “but you still got a piece of hillbilly in your heart.” The author says that she felt herself “swell with pride.”

Bottom Line: Hill Women is a tribute to the part of the country where Chambers was born, those Kentucky Appalachian communities that spawned generation after generation of tough men and women like those in her own family. The women, though, in the author’s family were different from the men in one significant way: they valued education much more than the men valued it. And even if they could not manage to get an education for themselves, they badly wanted it for the rest of the family, especially their daughters, sisters, and nieces. Education was the ticket to a better life for the women of Appalachian Kentucky - men could own farms and head families of their own; women, if not for education, were doomed to living the confined roles that mountain culture expected of them. This is their story.

Review Copy courtesy of Ballantine Books 


  1. Replies
    1. Very definitely a book about strong women written from a strong feminist point of view, Lark. The men don't come across as being nearly so forward-thinking. That's probably the truth.

  2. Well now, you might be interested in this. My late brother-in-law was called Frank Owsley and he always thought that one of his ancestors emigrated to the USA, did well, and had a county in the USA named after him. Whether he ever verified this I don't know, but we were able to tell him that we went through that county back in 2006 on the way from Memphis to Ohio. Owsley is a rare name in England, originated in either Somerset or Dorset I believe and it wouldn't surprise me if the story was true.

    1. Wow, how cool is that? Love it.

      According to the book, the locals all pronounce the county name Owls-ey despite the spelling. I can easily see how that would have happened because at first glance it even looked like that to me. Funny how the mind works.

  3. Oooh, this sounds fascinating! I'm going to look this one up. Thanks for the heads-up!

    1. It's a little bit like "Educated," if you read that one. This is another author who beat the odds and got the breaks she needed to obtain a priceless education.