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The Anguish of Displacement

The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park
Katrina M. Powell

BUY Paper · 232 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813936727 · $35.00 · Feb 2015

Following Congress’s approval of the creation of Shenandoah National Park in 1926, displaced Virginia mountain families wrote to U.S. government officials requesting various services, property, and harvested crops. The collection of 300 handwritten letters that resulted from this relocation reveals a complex dynamic between the people and the government and captures a moment in American history when the social, historical, and political climate was ripe for such uprooting. In The Anguish of Displacement: The Politics of Literacy in the Letters of Mountain Families in Shenandoah National Park, Katrina M. Powell explores the function of literacy as social and symbolic action and shows how these letters exposed multifaceted issues surrounding literacy, its use and disuse, and its power in documenting individual stories within the broader, overarching narratives about the Virginia landscape and the mountaineer.

Through rhetorical and socioliterary analysis, Powell examines what individual literate acts say about public educational practices, placing competing discourses about the region’s history alongside contemporary literacy theory. Through this approach, she both uncovers the complexities of gender, material condition, and education in determining and resisting social position and contributes to evolving theories of literacy and identity, arguing for their inextricable link.


Powell's book about Appalachian rhetoric is a case study of how literacy can be used to overpower the less literate rather than empower them. The book constitutes a counter-narrative to Shenandoah National Park official history, using 300 letters in park archives written by families who were displaced upon the creation of the national park, authorized by Congress in 1926. Using this significant, newly catalogued corpus of letters, Powell reveals the many facets of the poor, disadvantaged writers, who took up letter-writing to address the powerful Park bureaucracy. Powell not only extends our knowledge of literacy in Appalachia, but moves out globally to extend our knowledge of literacy in general.

Catherine L. Hobbs, Professor of English Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy, University of Oklahoma

A remarkable book that carefully traces the letter writing of individuals from Appalachian families who struggled to maintain their homes in the face of an eminent domain removal in order for the federal government to create the Shenandoah National Park. Anyone who has hiked the section of the 'People's Path,' or the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, that winds through Shenandoah National Park, will be moved to greater appreciation and clearer understanding of the human cost of creating this space.

Ellen Cushman, Michigan State University, and citizen of the Cherokee Nation

About the Author(s): 

Katrina M. Powell is Associate Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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