O'Brien, John 1943-
O'BRIEN, John 1943-
Born 1943, in Philadelphia, PA; son of James Patrick (a factory worker); married Becky Sheets (a teacher), 1963; children: Christopher, Shelly. Education: West Virginia University, B.A.; University of Iowa, M.F.A.
Home—Franklin, WV. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Random House, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
Writer. Has worked variously as a factory worker, teacher coordinator in Alaska, and college professor; writer.
Stegner fellowship, 1974-75; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor of essays to periodicals, including Hudson Review, Massachusetts Review, TriQuarterly, Country Journal, Harrowsmith, Gray's Sporting Journal, and New York Times.
John O'Brien lives and works in West Virginia, and many of his writings address issues pertinent to Appalachia. O'Brien, like many residents of the so-called Appalachian states, feels that the whole notion of "Appalachia" is a myth created a century or more ago by big business interests who sought to exploit coal and timber resources by portraying mountain people as backward, impoverished, and uneducated. In an editorial for the New York Times O'Brien wrote: "Many in the southern Appalachians are certainly poor, but the poverty grew out of the vagaries of the coal market and outsiders' control of resources. Industrialists and others, however, blamed the people for their own poverty, and this myth continues because it is entertaining to the Americans beyond the mountains." Throughout his work O'Brien challenges the stereotypes that have proven so damaging to the residents of the southern Appalachians.
O'Brien's memoir, At Home in the Heart of Appalachia, is at once a portrait of a region and a personal tale of his difficult relationship with his father. Although O'Brien was born in Philadelphia, his parents were both from West Virginia, as is his wife. From his earliest memories of visiting his grandparents to his later decision to move to the mountains, O'Brien nursed an obsession for West Virginia, its trout-filled streams and vast tracts of forest. Still the decision to live there was not an easy one, as he struggled not only with the concept of Appalachia but also with his father's feelings of inferiority for having grown up there. BookPage contributor Temple West wrote: "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."
At Home in the Heart of Appalachia offers O'Brien's take on the history of the region as well as his observations of life in rural West Virginia today. The picture that emerges reveals that mountain people resent the intrusions of outsiders, no matter how well meant those outsiders might be. O'Brien gives reasons for this attitude and shows how it developed over generations as missionaries and newspaper reporters created fictitious images of the mountain region. Repps Hudson in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch found the book to be "an informative … look at what has made West Virginia's mountain people who they are in their own eyes, and in the eyes of the world." Hudson concluded that O'Brien has painted "an intense and informative picture of the Appalachian world of his father's time and of today." In the Cleveland Plain Dealer, John Freeman called At Home in the Heart of Appalachia "an illuminating meditation on a singular, American place." Freeman added that the work "teems with lush description … while shedding much-needed light on a part of this country too often blanketed in shadow."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Cleveland Plain-Dealer, August 12, 2001, John Freeman, "Searching Memory for Region's Identity," p. I11.
Rocky Mountain News, June 15, 2001, Nancy Jacobsen, "Searching for Roots a Road to Nowhere," p. 23D.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 22, 2001, Repps Hudson, "Shadowboxing with Dad Takes W. Virginian back to the Hills," p. F9.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (June 30, 2003), Temple West, review of At Home in the Heart of Appalachia.
Post-Gazette,http://www.post-gazette.com/ (August 5, 2001), John Freeman, "Writer Looks beyond Beauty into Soul of West Virginia."*