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Reconciling Literacy and Loss in Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay

Erin M. Presley
p. 189-201


Dans tous les recueils de nouvelles de Rash, nombreux sont les personnages qui doivent faire face à des conflits, réels ou imaginaires, entre la tradition, l’éducation formelle et la communauté. Mais c’est un aspect particulièrement présent dans Nothing Gold Can Stay. Cet article examine les relations souvent tendues entre communautés appalachiennes et représentants du savoir dans une sélection de cinq nouvelles : “Twenty-Six Days”, “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven”, “The Magic Bus”, “The Dowry” et “Night Hawks.” Dans chacun de ces textes, des personnages sont confrontés aux opportunités que leur offre l’école aux dépens des valeurs des communautés dont ils sont issus et de leur sentiment d’appartenance communautaire. Ces dernières années, plusieurs ouvrages se sont intéressés aux tensions opposant l’éducation formelle à la perte du sentiment communautaire dans les Appalaches : c’est notamment le cas de Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance (2015) et d’un numéro spécial du Community Literacy Journal (2007) consacré à l’éducation dans les Appalaches. Mais aucun ouvrage n’a abordé la manière dont Rash traite cette tension dans ses nouvelles. Cet article examine la manière dont Rash utilise, avec prudence, l’histoire complexe des Appalachiens et des étrangers qui ont introduit les livres dans les montagnes pour explorer l’angoisse, éprouvée par de nombreux Appalachiens, que génère le sentiment de perte d’identité communautaire.

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Auteurs étudiés :

Ron Rash
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1Throughout each of Ron Rash’s short story collections, many characters must confront conflict—both real and imagined—between formal education and community. This reckoning, however, is especially noticeable in Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013), particularly in Parts Two and Three. The often uneasy relationship between Appalachian communities, academics and outsiders appears most prominently in five stories: “Twenty-Six Days,” “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” “The Magic Bus,” “The Dowry,” and “Night Hawks,” several of which also appear in the curated collection of Rash’s best short fiction, Something Rich and Strange (2014). This tension is at the heart of both “Twenty-Six Days” and “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” whose characters must contend with the opportunity that school can afford but often at the expense of the lore of their home communities as well as their sense of belonging. In these depictions, Rash simultaneously uses and critiques common stereotypes about Appalachia’s rejection of education, often challenging the trope of Appalachia’s perceived hostility towards outsiders and formal education and the need to leave the mountains for a better life. In recent years, several critical works have considered the tension between formal literacy and loss of community in Appalachia such as Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance (2015), but no work has focused solely on Rash’s treatment of this conflict in his short fiction, although, as will be argued, Appalachia’s vexed history with outsiders and formal education is carefully used in Nothing Gold Can Stay to explore ongoing anxieties about the loss of identity and community many Appalachians face.

2The complex history of schooling in Appalachia implicitly informs Rash’s depiction of education in these stories. In his analysis of Nothing Gold Can Stay, John Lang focuses on Rash’s “[c]onsciousness of history . . . both as ongoing resource and as cautionary tale” (116). While Lang’s insightful critique of the collection primarily engages with “Rash’s perennial theme of the horrors of war” and the effects of drug abuse on Appalachians, the interplay between past and present also informs education’s role in the world of these stories (117). While the collection certainly addresses the trauma of combat and addiction, many stories have at their heart Appalachia’s complicated history with education, specifically schools founded by outsiders. At the turn of the twentieth century, missionary and settlement schools, primarily led by people from outside the region, represented the educational opportunities available in Appalachia. In Appalachia: A History, John Alexander Williams describes the establishment of these schools in the region, emphasizing an overreliance on stereotypes and a lack of local voices in their development. Williams argues that the “religious and educational movement acquired its most influential spokesman in 1892 when William Goodell Frost became the third president of Berea College” (201). Frost began a campaign to save the mountaineers from themselves, claiming “the need for educational as well as moral redemption” (201). Donald Davis and Chris Baker concur with Williams’s assessment, finding that “among the first to attempt to ‘fix’ the problems of Appalachia were faith-based missionaries who began identifying the mountains as a place for educational and social reform a decade or so after the Civil War” (89). Unfortunately, the influential campaign led by Frost “was primarily based on images established by the creators of the literary mountaineer, not an assessment of mountain realities” (Williams 201). In addition to promoting largely unflattering stereotypes about the local residents so as to garner outside financial support, this approach to establishing educational opportunities created divisions between the schools and the Appalachians they were meant to serve. In his study, Williams also highlights that building and operating such schools was popular among “mainstream northern denominations . . . according to the myth of wartime Appalachian Unionism” (Williams 200). Drawing on earlier work by Henry Shapiro, Williams points out that these schools “did not grow out of the needs or appeals of the mountain people, but rather met the needs of the missionaries for new beginnings in a new field” (200). Remnants of the disconnect between the churches’ desire for new ministries in the mountains and the actual educational needs of the inhabitants persist within the region, and Rash’s stories directly invoke this tension.

3Some critics go as far as to suggest that the treatment of Appalachia in these stories reflects a national Othering of Appalachia, a practice which gained traction through the enduring media image of the morally questionable hillbilly. In her review essay, Carmen Rueda explores Othering and fatalism in Nothing Gold Can Stay, finding the stories of Part III most significant in these regards, and connecting these themes to the Robert Frost poem by the same title. In her discussion of “Night Hawks,” Rueda argues that “Rash presents Appalachia’s inability to escape otherness and marginality despite attempts at normalcy and being part of mainstream America” (88). Rueda also notes the sacrifices Appalachia has made for the nation and in her discussion of “The Dowry” suggests that “for Rash, Pastor Boone is not just the sacrificial lamb that takes away the world’s sin: the author subtly extends the allegory to Appalachia itself to suggest that it is a region that has often been sacrificed for the benefit of the rest of America” (87). Ultimately, for Rueda, the stories in this collection are fatalistic, representing “Rash’s bleak view of Appalachia” as “a vanishing culture” (89). Rash himself discusses the ways in which the United States has abused the region in “Appalachia’s Sacrifice,” an opinion piece published in The New York Times (2016). Writing about the mining industries’ desecration of eastern Kentucky communities and the subsequent contamination of drinking water in those rural counties, an issue long ignored by the media, Rash argues that “Appalachia has always given more to America than it has received, especially its natural resources, and in times of war, its sons and daughters.”

4As highlighted in Rash’s “Appalachia’s Sacrifice,” one pivotal way in which Appalachia has supported the nation is by disproportionately offering its youth to the military, and Rash thoughtfully addresses this aspect of Appalachian loss in “Twenty-Six Days.” In the story, a couple in western North Carolina anxiously awaits the return of their only child, Kerrie, from active duty in Afghanistan. The father, who remains nameless and serves as the story’s narrator, works as a janitor at the local college, while his wife Ellen is a waitress at a diner; they also clean a doctor’s office at night to earn some extra money. The reader finds out that this cleaning money “goes into an envelope [they’re] giving Kerrie the day she gets home. It’ll be nearly two thousand dollars, enough to help her some at college” (104-05). Clearly, these parents see college as a way for their daughter to have a better life and want to support her chances for success.

5Throughout the story, the narrator worries about his daughter’s safety and also feels responsible for her lot in life. He recalls hearing someone on TV describe the war in Afghanistan as “[j]ust a bunch of stupid hillbillies fighting a stupid war, . . . like Kerrie and the rest don’t matter” (98). This statement strikes a nerve with the narrator and also reflects the realities of those who end up joining the military. In a New York Times piece on military recruiting from January 2020, Dave Phillips and Tim Arango point out that “slick ads on social media offer less of the guns-and-grunts messaging of decades past. Instead they play up college benefits and career training.” In a similar vein, Nick Martin, writing for The New Republic, discusses how recruiters have greater access to high schools because of 2002’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” which required that all public schools grant military recruiters “the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post-secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers.” He also points out that “nearly two thirds of Army recruits in 2004 came from counties in which median household income is below the U.S. median.” The narrator/father in Rash’s story makes it clear that his household fits this description. As he worries about Kerrie, he reflects: “I tell myself I’ve given my daughter more than my parents gave me. That’s easier than thinking how if I’d had more ambition years back and gotten a welding certificate or degree at Blue Ridge Tech, made more money, Kerrie wouldn’t be over there” (98). In his discussion of “Twenty-Six Days,” Lang notes Rash’s recognition that “economic necessity, not just patriotism, has often led to a disproportionately high rate of enlistment among young people from the mountain South” (121). Rash’s presentation of Kerrie’s situation reflects the well-documented economic insecurity experienced by many people in Appalachian counties.

6Unsurprisingly, the economically distressed school districts of this region report fewer students attending college than districts in other parts of the country. The Appalachian Regional Commission reports that between 2013 and 2017, 30.9% of the U.S. population had a Bachelor’s degree; in the Appalachian region, only 23.7% had earned a degree (Appalachian Regional Commission). The students who do pursue higher education, many of whom are first-generation college students, must confront the expense of a college degree. For example, at a regional comprehensive university with a service region of 22 counties designated as “distressed” or “at risk” by the Appalachian Regional Commission, approximately 71% of students receive need-based financial aid, reflecting the economic realities of the region and how expensive a college education really is for most of the students (EKU Office of Institutional Research). This institution also attracts a large number of first-generation college students from the Appalachian area and beyond. For example, in fall 2017, the Retention and Graduation Office reported 41.9% of students identified as the first person in their family to attend college on the Free Application for Student Aid (Hunter). These statistics make clear the financial challenges Appalachian students face when deciding to pursue a college degree, but they do not capture the additional toll higher education takes on some relationships, especially for first-generation college students.

7In “Twenty-Six Days,” Kerrie is poised to be the first person in her family to go to college once she returns from Afghanistan. The story makes it clear that Kerrie will not attend a college in Appalachia; instead, she plans to attend North Carolina State University, a large public university in the piedmont region, and intends to major in education. In addition to taking on odd jobs to earn money for Kerrie’s educational expenses, her father also accepts donated books from a professor at the university where he cleans. Professor Nadia Korovich is a new faculty member and kindly offers books to the narrator for Kerrie to read when she returns. Professor Korovich represents one of the few positive outside forces in the stories of Nothing Gold Can Stay as she thoughtfully asks the narrator about his daughter and engages him in conversation. One day, the narrator overhears another professor gossiping about the gifted books and hears “Nadia doesn’t realize that he’ll just turn around and sell them, but better the flea market than the outhouse” (100). Of course, the narrator is saving the books for his daughter’s edification, but the professor’s comments reflect harmful stereotypes based on the narrator’s class and Appalachian identity, and suggest the place-based prejudices Kerrie may face when she enters the college classroom as a working-class Appalachian.

8Like Kerrie, Jody and Lauren are also potential first-generation college students in “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven.” The critical collection Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance (2015), edited by Sara Webb-Sunderhaus and Kim Donehower, presents works that consider the tension between formal literacy and loss of community in Appalachia and provides a framework through which to view Jody and Lauren’s situation. In the chapter “The Transition to College for First-Generation Students from Extractive Industry Appalachia,” Todd Snyder argues that the place these students come from powerfully shapes their college literacies and their classroom experiences. In his interviews with students from a mining town in West Virginia, he characterizes the way they talk about going to college as “pioneer rhetoric” because “they feel as if they are entering uncharted academic territory. They see their professors and peers as native to an academic world to which they do not belong. They see their parents and their communities/schools as unable or unwilling to prepare them for such a journey” (87). Snyder’s findings readily apply to the experience of Jody and Lauren in Rash’s story. The two characters are both gifted students, and “they’d grown up in families where college was an expectation” (128), even though their parents have no real experience with higher education and do not know how to best encourage and support academic ambitions. They also lack the financial resources to support higher education, and unlike Kerrie’s parents, do not appear involved in helping their children to be successful. During high school, Lauren becomes Jody’s support system for doing well in school. Thanks to Lauren, Jody becomes more comfortable “show[ing] his intelligence” in the classroom, but “[t]he boys he rode the bus with no longer invited him on hunting and fishing trips. Soon they didn’t bother to speak” (128). In fact, some of Jody’s peers view his growing intellect as “an act of betrayal” (129). After high school graduation, Jody goes to college, but Lauren stays in their hometown of Canton, North Carolina and begins making methamphetamine in an abandoned house.

9While Lauren’s fate may seem an Appalachian stereotype at first sight or an example of Rash’s “keen awareness of humanity’s fallen condition,” as suggested by Martha Greene Eads, his depiction provides nuance to the economic realities young people in the region face (129). Throughout the story, economics is an issue for the main characters. Even after making it to college in Raleigh and doing well in his classes, Jody worries about how to finance his education as his first year ends. While talking to his brother, Trey, about his summer plans, Jody shares that he was offered to stay in Raleigh and work at the university library, but instead has decided to come back to Canton and work at the poultry processing plant. His brother does not understand this choice, but Jody says, “‘Tuition’s up again. Even with the scholarships, I’ll have to get another loan. No rent and better pay if I stay here’” (137). Trey responds rhetorically, “‘They don’t make it easy for a mountain boy, do they?’” (137), alluding to the inherent challenges students from Appalachia face. Later that evening, unable to sleep, Jody thinks about “[m]ore loans to pay back and, in such an uncertain economy, perhaps no job” (141). While these realities affect many American students, financial hardships represent an ongoing problem for Appalachians in particular. In White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016), Nancy Isenberg discusses L.B. Johnson’s complicated relationship with Appalachian communities and suggests parallels that echo Trey’s musings about the struggles of “a mountain boy.” For example, in situating Johnson among the Washington elite, Isenberg argues,

A country boy might at any moment reveal some telltale sign of a white trash character. He might say something inappropriate. He could never conceal the artless drawl or dust off the sticky red clay. Indelible marks of class identity were forever stamped on him, no matter how far he wandered from the inhospitable land of his birth. (266)

10The essence of this description with its focus on class could easily apply to the experiences of Rash’s characters who seek higher education outside of Appalachia. In discussing the War on Poverty, Isenberg also explores the more problematic nature of Johnson’s focus on Appalachian poverty and claims that “Johnson connected his reform to the work of Eleanor Roosevelt, invoking her sentimental appeal to hillbillies” (262). The use of the troubled label “hillbillies” reflects stereotyping of Appalachian people during the War on Poverty, which notably included the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the term’s persistent and damaging legacy.

11Set during the War on Poverty and the Vietnam War, “The Magic Bus,” the first story in Part III, focuses on teenage Sabra’s dreams of leaving her mountain home near Boone, North Carolina. Early in the story, Sabra looks for license plates from “far places like New Mexico or California or Alaska, whose tags had blues and golds and reds in them. . . . Each time one passed she imagined what it would be like to live there instead of a gloomy farm” (148). Adding to Sabra’s discontent is the impending start of the school year, which will not include her best friend who “had quit school in May to get married” (149). The story does not indicate that Sabra plans to graduate from high school and go to college or any defined goals beyond the dreary work and monotony of the farm. In a 1980 report on high school graduation rates—their oldest published—, the Appalachian Regional Commission reports only 52% of students from Appalachian North Carolina graduated from high school (Appalachian Regional Commission); it can be assumed that the percentage was even lower during the time “The Magic Bus” takes place.

12With no clear goals for the future, Sabra appears an easy mark for the nomadic couple, Thomas and Wendy, who stop by the farm for food and water. Sabra immediately recognizes that they are hippies and that her father would not approve of her talking to them. In fact, they exemplify Rash’s tendency “to portray outsiders as threats to the cultural and natural integrity of Southern Appalachia” (Powell 25). After introducing themselves, Thomas and Wendy praise Sabra’s name by exclaiming, “what a beautiful name” and “very exotic sounding” (151). Sabra’s name is unique for her setting; it is Jewish in origin and comes from the Hebrew word for prickly pear. The term “sabra” is also used to describe a Jewish person born in Palestine or, after 1948, Israel (OED). While the etymology of Sabra’s name may appear out of place in a story set in western North Carolina, the connections between place and identity resonate with her experience of feeling displaced. Excited by the visitors and the promise of some adventure, Sabra invites Thomas and Wendy to stay in the family’s barn and have dinner, hidden away from her parents. Thomas invites Sabra to join them, to “‘hitch a ride on the magic bus’” and to experience freedom (163). She responds that she wants to go, but what she really wants is the illusion, “to pretend a bit longer that she actually might” leave with them (164). In the end, Thomas burns the family’s barn when Sabra decides to stay, and she is left to deal with the resulting mess. The final lines of the story describe the family’s cow as “not knowing where else to go” (172), a sentiment that also captures Sabra’s own confusion and sense of displacement.

13Rash continues to explore the theme of leaving the mountains for a college education and to assess the importance of the past in “Night Hawks,” the story of Ginny, a woman who left her teaching job after a freak accident hurt one of her young students and she subsequently harmed herself in the classroom. Providing context for Ginny’s inability to return to her middle school classroom after the accident that leaves her hospitalized and forever scarred, Rash details her childhood experience of school, shame, and loneliness. From a poor family unable to afford dental work, Ginny is ashamed of her crooked teeth; she avoids talking in class or socializing with her peers, who mercilessly make fun of her, and develops a habit of covering her mouth with her hand when speaking. Luckily, an engaged teacher, Mrs. Ellison, helps Ginny overcome her anxiety about speaking by making her the announcer of the school’s radio program. Mrs. Ellison also finds a local orthodontist willing to repair Ginny’s teeth at no charge. Thanks to Mrs. Ellison’s positive influence, Ginny “had no reason to turn her face from the world” by the time she enters high school, “but certain habits had become ingrained,” including keeping to herself (216). Readers learn that “when Chapel Hill offered Ginny a full academic scholarship, none of her teachers were surprised. Several of them had, however, questioned her decision to major in elementary education” (216-17). Ginny assumes they questioned her choice of major because of her quiet demeanor, but the teachers may also have wanted a different path for her because of her options at a research-intensive institution and the realities of the relative low pay and lack of respect elementary teachers receive.

14Ginny’s choice also echoes Kerrie’s plan in “Twenty-Six Days” to become a teacher. Their choice of a career in education reflects the focus of higher education in the mountains rather than that of the research universities they attend; at comprehensive universities, most of which began as normal schools in the region, teacher preparation is central to the mission. While Ginny attends North Carolina’s premier public institution, it is interesting to note the connection to a more regional focus on teaching. Her reflection also emphasizes how present the past is in all of Rash’s stories. As Frédérique Spill notes in her discussion of Rash’s short fiction, “the present is thus densified by remembrance, either in the form of a separate snapshot or, more elusively, in that of a sensation that is suddenly redolent of the past” (35). The permanence of the past within the present proves significant in Ginny’s story.

15Despite Ginny’s failed career choice and ultimate move to working the night shift at a local radio station, she begins showcasing her love for learning on her nightly radio program. As she becomes more comfortable in her new role as disc jockey, she

begin[s] to talk more, though rarely about music. She brought in atlases and magazines, books that ranged from fat hardback tomes on western art to tattered paperback almanacs. Ginny quizzed her listeners twice an hour. . . . Each night she picked a word from The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Highly Literate and gave its definition. She read from a book titled On This Day in History. (218)

16Essentially, Ginny resumes her role as a teacher, but with better results, for the listeners of her radio program. The station manager lets her know that her approach is popular among listeners; “the calls and e-mails ran five to one in her favor, including several from immigrants who credited Ginny with teaching them about American history” (218-19). The manager is so thrilled with the improved ratings that he exclaims, “‘As long as you get that kind of response, I don’t care if you read the complete plays of William Shakespeare on air’” (219). While the station manager is not concerned about the instructive power of Ginny’s show, her listeners benefit from her pedagogical approach to radio.

17While much of the story focuses on Ginny’s solitude and her talent as a radio announcer, her ex-boyfriend Andrew also plays an important role in her life. When Ginny accepts the disc jockey position, she chooses “Night Hawk” as her on-air name; this alias also provides its title to the story. It is Andrew who introduces Ginny to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942), and she is struck by how intensely the painting captures loneliness in an urban setting. Hopper’s image of urban isolation resonates with Ginny and her experience of solitude in a rural community so much that she pays homage to it in her new career through her choice of moniker. The name also helps Andrew identify Ginny after she leaves her teaching position and ends their relationship. He hears her show one night, calling in to give the correct answer to one of her quizzes. In this particular quiz, “she offered a free ball cap to a listener naming the poem that began ‘Whose woods these are I think I know’” (219). Of course, the answer is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Andrew is the first caller to answer the question correctly. The Frost reference also echoes the collection’s title as another nod to the poet.

18While “The Dowry” does not focus explicitly on obtaining education, in this story Rash does complicate the perception of literacy in Appalachia through his characterizations of the well-read Pastor Boone and Doctor Andrews, as well as through the presence of the past. “The Dowry” is set in western North Carolina after the end of the Civil War and before the settlement school movement, and both Pastor Boone and Doctor Andrews appear as educated individuals who contemplate a moral dilemma in their community that stems from Appalachia’s divided loyalties during the Civil War. As they meet at the doctor’s house to discuss how best to help a young couple kept apart by wartime allegiances, Pastor Boone considers the home’s function “as a salon for the best-educated men in Marshall to discuss everything from literature and politics to science and religion” (184). Readers learn that the doctor’s library consists of medical tomes, works by Darwin, Shakespeare, and other canonical texts. As the two learned men discuss the plight facing a young woman and man who hope to marry, they compare the woman’s war-hardened father, Colonel Davidson, to Shakespeare’s Prospero (185). Pastor Boone astutely notes that “‘Prospero forgave his enemies’” in The Tempest, while the Colonel refuses to reconcile.

19Although the Colonel appears well-versed in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, during his debate with Pastor Boone, it is noteworthy that Boone’s conversation about forgiveness with Doctor Andrews focuses on a secular text. The Colonel, who fought for the Confederacy and lost a hand in battle, will only allow Ethan, who joined the Union cause, to marry Helen if the young man cuts off his own hand. In her discussion of “The Dowry,” Martha Greene Eads argues that the story “depicts a world in which traditional Christian faith falters” (130). Indeed, Eads’s assessment of the collection as a whole—that it “offers hope not in the form of conventional Christianity but instead in examples of the Jamesian ascetic’s capacity to meet the world’s wrongness with heroic inner resources” (124-25)—captures Boone’s ultimate decision.

20While “The Dowry” does not present Pastor Boone or Doctor Andrews’s intellectual pursuits as divisive in the community, it is clear that Boone’s privileged position as a clergy member spared him the worst effects of the war, and he is aware of that fact as is Colonel Davidson. For example, Pastor Boone recognizes that “[e]ven in the war’s brutal last winter, he had never lacked firewood and food, and, childless, no son to fear for. No outliers had abused him. Almost alone in that dark time, he, Christ’s shepherd, had been blessed” (177). The pastor also regrets not making his position on the war clear to his congregation. While conversing with Doctor Andrews, he argues: “‘Unlike the Colonel and this youth, we were spared the war’s violence and suffering. Perhaps it’s time for us to render what is our duty, even if we would wish it otherwise’” (187). As they debate, Doctor Andrews tries to reason with his friend, explaining, “‘Prudence was necessary . . . .I essayed no show of Unionist sympathies once the war began’” (188). Boone counters, “‘But you did before. I did not even do that . . . Perhaps if I had, and done so forcefully, Leland Davidson would not have joined the Confederacy’” (188). While the doctor doubts Davidson would have chosen differently, his appeals to reason do not sway his friend, the pastor. To make amends for his comfort and to help his congregation heal, Pastor Boone offers his own hand to the Colonel in order to save young Ethan’s, thus calling to mind Rash’s other intellectual Appalachian characters, Leonard Shuler in The World Made Straight and Sheriff McDowell in Serena, both of whom sacrifice themselves for the greater good of their communities.

  • 1 In the piece entitled “On Writing,” Rash evokes the moment when, as a child, he understood that his (...)

21Rash’s stories thus challenge popular notions about literacy in Appalachia and reveal the historically complicated relationship Appalachians have had, and continue to have, with formal education. Rash knows this history and has spoken earnestly about his own grandfather’s illiteracy and gift for storytelling, which inspired his writing career (“On Writing”).1 Discussing his craft in an interview with Frédérique Spill about Nothing Gold Can Stay, Rash explains that he is “very conscious of how those stories play off of each other. I want them to be woven together for a singular effect” (“Short Story Writing” 310). That effect is one of reconciliation. The five stories discussed here show how education is not a guaranteed pathway to happiness and success for Appalachian characters. Indeed, they reflect the ongoing ramifications of the nation’s treatment of Appalachian communities since the Civil War and highlight the additional hardships their characters experience because of their intellect. Despite these challenges, all of these stories emphasize the potential for education to ameliorate the lives and opportunities of Appalachian people by addressing the additional hurdles they face. As in his call-to-action opinion piece about contaminated water in Kentucky’s coal country, Rash details in his stories the very real problems with which young Appalachians must contend such as economic insecurity and drug abuse. These problems are systemic and products of a national economy that has historically taken Appalachia’s natural resources and allowed prescription drugs to be pumped into the region unchecked. By focusing on these contemporary issues in Nothing Gold Can Stay, Rash provides historical context and sheds light on these unique challenges, raising awareness for his wide readership and, hopefully, initiating meaningful changes for Appalachians.

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Appalachian Regional Commission. “Research and Data.” Appalachian Regional Commission. Web. 23 June 2020.

Davis, Donald, and Chris Baker. “Fixing Appalachia: A Century of Community Development in a ‘Depressed’ Area.” Studying Appalachian Studies. Eds. Chad Berry, Phillip Obermiller, and Shaunna Scott. Champagne: U of Illinois P, 2015. 88-118. Print.

Eads, Martha Greene. “The Christ-Abandoned Landscape of Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Summoning the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash. Eds. Randall Wilhelm and Zackary Vernon. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2018. 122-36. Print.

EKU Office of Institutional Research. “Factbook.” EKU. Web. 16 Jan. 2020.

Hunter, Gill. Personal interview. 16 Jan. 2020.

Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Viking, 2016. Print.

Lang, John. Understanding Ron Rash. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2014. Print.

Martin, Nick. “The Military Views Poor Kids as Fodder for Its Forever Wars.” New Republic 7 Jan. 2020. Web. 16 Jan. 2020.

Phillips, Dave, and Tim Arango. “Who Signs Up to Fight? Makeup of U.S. Recruits Shows Glaring Disparity.” New York Times 10 Jan. 2020. Web. 16 Jan. 2020.

Powell, David. “Classical Music in Ron Rash’s The Cove and The World Made Straight.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 26.1 (2020): 25-39. Print.

Rash, Ron. “Appalachia’s Sacrifice.” Opinion. New York Times 18 Nov. 2016: A23. Print.

---. Nothing Gold Can Stay. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. Print.

---. “On Writing: The Importance of Place.” Marly Rusoff Literary Agency. Web. 23 June 2020.

---. “Something Rich and Strange: Ron Rash on Short Story Writing—an Interview.” By Frédérique Spill. Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern Short Fiction. Eds. Alice Clark, Gérald Préher and Emmanuel Vernadakis. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 67 (Autumn 2016): 301-12. Print.

Rueda, Carmen. “Transience and Change in Appalachia: Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Appalachian Journal 42.1 (2015): 82-89. Print.

“Sabra, n.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Sept. 2020. Web. 4 Sept. 2020.

Snyder, Todd. “The Transition to College for First-Generation Students from Extractive Industry Appalachia.” Rereading Appalachia: Literacy, Place, and Cultural Resistance. Eds. Sara Webb-Sunderhaus and Kim Donehower. Lexington: U of Kentucky P, 2015. 77-98. Print.

Spill, Frédérique. “Something Rich and Strange (2014): Ron Rash’s Short Fiction Poetics.” Short Fiction in Theory & Practice 7.1 (2017): 23-38. Print.

Williams, John Alexander. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002. Print.

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1 In the piece entitled “On Writing,” Rash evokes the moment when, as a child, he understood that his grandfather wasn’t actually reading from the book open before him, but making up the story of “The Cat and the Hat,” never telling the same story twice: “What makes this anecdote so remarkable is that my grandfather could not read or write. He had grown up on a farm in the North Carolina mountains where children spent their mornings in fields instead of classrooms. What he had done was make up a story to fit the pictures that lay on the pages before us. Not surprisingly, I quickly realized that the story he was reading was very different from the one my mother had read from the same book.”

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Erin M. Presley, « Reconciling Literacy and Loss in Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay »Journal of the Short Story in English, 74 | 2020, 189-201.

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Erin M. Presley, « Reconciling Literacy and Loss in Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 74 | Spring 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 31 mars 2023. URL :

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Erin M. Presley

Erin M. Presley is an Associate Professor of English at Eastern Kentucky University, where she teaches courses in writing, literature, and Appalachian Studies. She has published on Shakespeare and popular culture, information literacy, and writing studies. She is currently finishing a book manuscript on Horace Kephart’s influence on contemporary Appalachian writers including Ron Rash and Robert Morgan.

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