omes down to fathers and sons, writes John O'Brien at the end of his first book, At Home in the Heart of Appalachia. A skillfully written memoir about family relationships, O'Brien's narrative explores the meaning of home and what it takes to find a geographical as well as spiritual center.
O'Brien's story begins and ends on a July day in 1995, the day his father is to be buried in Philadelphia. Because of a longstanding estrangement, O'Brien won't be at the funeral, yet he needs formal closure, so he makes a trip to Piedmont, West Virginia, his father's birthplace. He is desperate, he says, "to understand my father's life, if only to better understand my own."In the chapters between the day's beginning and end, O'Brien deftly weaves memories, recollections and observations about his own life with those of Pendleton County, West Virginia, where he has lived with his wife and two children since 1984, in a town called Franklin, not far from Piedmont. The stories intertwine as O'Brien blends the threads into a narrative that is gentle and satisfying despite chronicles of personal difficulties and deep community fissures. The storms that bring discord and fear of outsiders to this mountain community are paralleled by storms that bring the same kind of fear and discord to O'Brien and his family. The aftermath may fade in time, but, for O'Brien's family, the emotional scars remain forever in nightmares, distrust and anger.
O'Brien doesn't discover what he sets out to find on that July day "the gulf of misunderstanding remained as wide as ever" but in his exploration of the geography and people of Appalachia, which he describes with deep understanding and reverence, and in his exploration of himself, which he accomplishes with unflinching, sometimes uncomfortable honesty, he does remember good times with his dad, and he does find answers to questions that many of us have about the meaning of home. A line of poetry by a writer whose name he cannot recall has special resonance for O'Brien: "My home is in my head." Carrying the poet's thought one step further, he writes, "My home is the memory in my head." At the end of this moving memoir, O'Brien seems to have achieved understanding and peace, perhaps with his father's help after all.
Temple West is a creative nonfiction writer in Norfolk, Virginia.