Review by Melissa Oliveira
We were still in the early days of this pandemic — nominally spring, though in Berlin it still felt like winter — when I first started noticing the signs in the grocery store. Taped to the wall at about shoulder height, they read Zuhause nicht sicher? in bold red letters: Not safe at home? Below the words was a row of tear-off strips with contact information for an agency that helps victims of domestic violence. At this time, the news covered the virus in China, Italy and France, and we knew it was already here. So when cases were still exploding from ski resorts and carnival celebrations, and we received our orders to stay home except for exercise or essential trips, these signs began to catch my eye. After awhile, I started noticing them affixed to Morris columns and lamp posts and the corrugated metal blinds that cover the shop windows overnight, all asking the same important question: Not safe at home? Around the same time, fresh graffiti appeared nearby that read Stay home before we all die! Timing and strange circumstances locked these two messages together in my mind. On one side, home is a place of protection for self and others. On the other, home is a place that’s far from safe; in fact, the UN recently described domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic” growing alongside Covid-19.
These two messages were often on my mind while I read Bobi Conn’s new memoir of rural poverty and domestic abuse, In the Shadow of the Valley (Little A, May 2020). “Home,” Conn writes early on in her book, “Can anyone define that? For some, it’s simply where the heart is. Cross-stitch that and hang it on a wall. For the rest of us, it’s a negation: where I’ve never been.” Home, if we’re talking about the house Conn grew up in, is a place of violence, drug abuse and pain: a house tucked inside an isolated and beautiful eastern Kentucky holler, built on “dark and bloody ground.” Like any fairy tale forest, the holler is rife with danger, which Conn contends with throughout this coming-of-age story. This ranges from the depressed economics of Appalachia, with its “the poverty boom-and-bust lifestyle” and opiate addiction, to the brutal physical and emotional violence regularly meted out on the family by Conn’s father. Throughout the book, Conn gains an education that allows her to claw her way out of these circumstances, but continues to grapple with a degree of self-loathing that is palpable on the page. She struggles with substance abuse that periodically sabotages everything she’s worked for. She remains tragically vulnerable to predatory men — men who also go to Rainbow Gatherings and appear to share her beliefs, desires and love of music but who still try to isolate and control her.
Conn’s will and grit are evident on the page; though she repeatedly faults herself for her silence she nevertheless gets herself to a safer, saner place in life. In addition, Conn’s careful, lyrical attention to the natural landscape of Kentucky make up some of the best parts of the book. These sections are rich with her voice and interwoven with observations about the people she grew up around. Take this section, for example: “A holler is a place … where the sun takes a little longer to show itself in the morning and falls to sleep behind the hills a little sooner. Someone’s always discovering the treasures buried in hollers — lumber, mineral rights, gas rights — and when they’re not ravaging the forests we explored as children… when they’re not ravaging our minds with OxyContin and cheap heroin and low-paying jobs and Mountain Dew and broken schools, it is us doing the ravaging.” In these sections, Conn explores the deep, painful contradictions of her world in scene and image.
Often, however, the narrative veers away from these scenic storytelling and falls into a mode that feels distant and removed. At its weakest points, the book can feel more like autobiographical reportage than memoir, its structure reduced to a collection of isolated, unconnected episodes that never cohere into something greater. With reported event following reported event, the book begins to lose momentum around the halfway mark. The narrative instead seems to wheel away from any larger structure or theme. I did not feel rooted in the kinds of strong scenes on display earlier in the book until Conn connects with her grandmother and observes her father’s life without having to be subject to his abuse. There’s a deep and complicated resonance in those sections.
Readers who enjoyed The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover may also be drawn to Bobi Conn’s In the Shadow of the Valley; there is some overlap in the subjects of rural poverty and childhood neglect. But though the raw materials are all here to make a great memoir in the vein of those other works, the book falls somewhat short of the mark when it eschews larger thematic concerns for episodic storytelling. Nevertheless, it is a memoir about life in a region I don’t get the opportunity to read about often, with a unique history and voice.