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Alpha and Brack Baldridge: A Lifestyle Difference

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  • Category: Life

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River of Earth by James Still which was first published in nineteen forty is an insight into the life of the Baldridge family who live in the coal mining area of Appalachian Kentucky in the early part of the twentieth century.  The lives lived in this particular area is unlike that anywhere else in the United States.  Life was hard in two ways.  The families who worked the land had to deal with the hardships of nature and the ones who mined the coals had to sell their souls to the coal companies who cared nothing about the men who made them money.  Brack and Alpha Baldridge were pulled in different directions when it came to which life their family should live.  Alpha was a woman who was tied to the land and Brack was a slave to the mines.

            River of Earth is about the Alpha and Brack Baldridge, their nuclear family, and their extended family.  They have four children until the end of the novel when Alpha gives birth to another baby and the story is told in the first person point of view by their middle child.   Both Brack and Alpha love their children and want the best life for them, they just disagree what that life is.  They are also pulled in different directions by members of their extended families.  In Appalachia money was scarce; therefore, family was important because it became a priority instead of money and material possessions.

            Alpha was born to a farming family who believed that a person’s roots were in the soil as much as that of a tree.  Her mother has instilled in her that land ownership was what made a person important and that food produced from the earth is more nutritious.  Alpha believes that there is a connection between people and the land and even though it takes her family away from a confined society, she is willing to sacrifice it so that she can allow them the power to run free and watch the land produce the necessities of life.  To her the relationship between the land and people is almost a spiritual one.  When it is obvious that Brack will have to go back to the mines to work because he has allowed his freeloading relatives drain him of money and food, Alpha knows that she must get in her point of view in a way that will make it look as if she is still trying to obey her husband. When he tells her that The Collingsworth mine is to reopen and that they will move away from the farm and again they would reside in the coal camp she reminds him that he could make a sacrifice to live on the land.

“It’s only two miles to Blackjack,” mother said.  “I figure you could walk it of a day.  pity to fotch the baby into the camps and it so puny.” (Still, 1978, p. 67)

            Brack sees coal camp living in a totally different light.  His family has never been landowners and he feels no connection to the land.  According to Alpha’s mother it is because of his family that he is a miner.

“Brack’s an honest man, but heired sorry kinfolks.  That Stamp, and them two devil cousins didling around, stirring up trouble.  Hit’s a wonder Brack’s forever moving, abiding nowhere long.  Only if he’d settle some place and grow roots, I’d not be eternally worrying.” (p. 130)

Brack wants the company of other people instead of the isolation that he feels away from the camp.  He feels that when he is in the mines that he is a part of the earth by being inside of it.  He finds that better than depending on the earth and even trying to manipulate it with planting and harvesting.  Brack sees the coal camp which is symbolic for society as the place for advancement for the children.  He wants them to go to school and to have playmates.

            Brack and Alpha Baldridge are two good people who want different ways of life.  One is not more right than the other.  This was a struggle in Appalachia during the first half of the twentieth century, but is much less so in modern times.  The price of food and lack of government price supports have made farming the land almost impossible.  Alpha’s preferred way of life has all but disappeared.


Still, J. (1978).  River of Earth. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

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