Protagonists of Appalachian literature often have a deep connection with the land. This is unsurprising, since the area is notorious as a rural region ruined by the raiding of its natural resources. Appalachian characters struggle with their conflicting love of the land and ambivalence about the industrial development of said land. Authors often communicate this complicated relationship through personification of the land. For instance, Mary Claire Johnson notes in “Art as a Weapon: Land, Gender and Work in Myra Page’s Daughter of the Hills”:
That the characters in the novel have relationships to the land is evident, but it becomes clear that the land itself has its own identity in the novel. Page creates a slice of nature that is as alive and real as those who dwell within it. Often High Top mountain is personified, as in these passages: “High Top nodded back” (96), and “High Top stood clear and bare, her head resting against the stars” (97). High Top is always portrayed as a woman as well, coinciding with Carolyn Merchant’s historical account of a Chaucerian and Elizabethan view of nature, that of a “kindly and caring, motherly provider, a manifestation of the God who had imprinted a designed, planned order on the world” (6). Yet along with Merchant’s claim about the earth comes a logical metaphor for destroying it: “When the pastoral tradition symbolized nature as a benevolent female, it contained the implication that nature, when plowed and cultivated, could be used as a commodity and manipulated as a resource” (8). In other words, the land’s identity begins to change when one considers the process of mining as man’s mechanization interfering with nature.
Here, Appalachia is a benevolent and loving land whose destruction should be mourned.
I would argue that Allison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home is a text as Appalachian as Daughter of the Hills, though for very different reasons. In contrast, none of the Bechdels seem to have any particular attachment to the land, father Bruce’s meticulous gardening notwithstanding. There is no connection except that it almost perfectly hems Bruce in. In fact, his entire family, Allison included, has unreserved distaste for the area, viewing it as insular and countrified, certainly not a beloved home with an identity of its own. Not personifying the land seems to make Fun Home not Appalachian, but it’s exactly that omission that highlights Bruce’s abnormal relationship to it. This relationship is rarely visited and almost taboo: that of the Appalachian who dislikes Appalachia.
The Bechdel’s rural Pennsylvania town had one brief brush with wealth in 1867, when the lumber industry boomed. Since then, poverty blossomed in the area, creating an insular mile-and-a-half circle within which Bruce became trapped – in the family business, in a heterosexual domestic lifestyle, and in an area which he felt was beneath him. Allison depicts this entrapment in a parable from Bruce’s early life, in which he, a toddler, sets forth across a recently plowed field, as if he wishes to leave home as soon as he can walk. His legs get stuck in the mud and he must be rescued by the milkman. Allison imagines him as “a reverse grim reaper” who puts a death sentence on Bruce’s outward expansion.
Of course Bruce’s inability to leave Appalachia clearly does not hold weight, as Allison is perfectly capable of getting out. Though this post focuses on Bruce, the story is really all about Allison, as graphic memoirs tend to be. Since the storyteller, artist, and protagonist are all the same person, the reader is treated to a highly subjective recounting of the tale. Allison treats us to her personal experience of life in Appalachia, including her distaste for her hometown. However, her illustration of the mile-and-a-half circle of Bruce’s life is as a topographical map. As opposed to Allison’s usual subjective narrative, this panel factually depicts a circumscribed existence which, contrary to the narrative’s usual detachment from Appalachia, is so geographically rooted that only a map can properly illustrate it.
In response to his circumscribed existence, Bruce became obsessed with his home, an artifact of the area’s prosperous period. He rehabilitated the home in an attempt to regain past affluence, “indifferent to the human cost of his projects”. “He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.” Instead of a circumscribed heterosexual existence, Bruce builds a perfect, cosmopolitan home and family, as if to deny that he is in any way rooted to the Appalachia he so despises. Allison suggests that he designed the house’s decorative interior in order to mask his self-loathing as Daedalus built his labyrinth to hide the Minotaur.
She views his death similarly, as “his consummate artifice, his masterpiece.” Both were ways of using his surroundings (he committed suicide by jumping in front of a passing truck on a rural highway) in order to hide his dissatisfaction with his circumscribed life. Thus the geography simply becomes a feature upon which to project Bruce’s self-loathing. He takes it out on the land by shaping it, covering it over, and punishing it when it does not obey (similar to how he treats his family), manipulating it in a small-scale imitation of radical geographical operations like coal mining or natural gas drilling. The land, the house where Bruce Bechdel lived upon that land, and the family he raised in it become locations to take out his self-loathing, triggered by the impossibility of leaving Appalachia.