Long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements made headlines, novelist Silas House got an important lesson from his grandmother about how to treat women. The widow supported her nine children by working at the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Corbin. In Harland Sanders’ kitchen, Ethel Mae House endured the disrespect of her male coworkers who felt free to insult and pinch her.
“When she was in her 80s and I was a little boy, she would tell me about that and say, ‘Don’t you ever be that way,’” House says.
Ethel Mae was one of the “strong mountain women” who helped raise House and set him on the course to being a bestselling author and an activist for gender equity and other causes. The Laurel County native appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his life and his forthcoming novel. In addition to his writing, House is the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College.
The Mentors Who Inspired Social Activism
The childhood conversation with his grandmother ignited a spark of social justice in House – a spark that was fanned into a flame by other important people in his life. House says his parents were models of empathy and compassion. Their quiet acts of kindness, like helping a neighbor child in need, showed House that doing good for others was its own reward.
Now House is showing his daughters how to be compassionate and socially active. The novelist spoke at the Lexington sister rally to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. House told his grandmother’s story, and encouraged men to speak out against violence against women and advocate for reproductive rights. House describes the experience as one of the most amazing moments of his life.
“It was empowering,” says House. “I was doing it not just because I have daughters, not just because I have a mother and cousins and aunts, but because I felt like it was the right thing to do to speak up.”
House credits fellow Kentucky writer Wendell Berry with being another important influence in his life. He says Berry encouraged him to join the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining and other environmental issues. Berry also taught House to not be afraid to speak his own truth.
“He’s a role mode for all of us because, when you get right down to it, everything that Wendell stands for is just compassion,” House says. “How can you go wrong with that?”
Whether it’s opposing sexism and sexual harassment or ravages against the natural world, House says it’s up to the people to change the culture. That’s especially true in Kentucky, a state that House says fascinates him and frustrates him.
“I think that we’re in a situation right now where a lot of our legislators in Kentucky are not representing us properly,” House says. “So when that happens, we have to take hold of the plow, and I think Kentuckians historically have done that. That’s the kind of people we are.”
The Powerlessness of Parenthood
The themes of social change and parent-and-child bonds are at the center of House’s new novel, “Southernmost,” which will be released in June. The book tells the story of evangelical minister in a small Tennessee town who loses his job, his wife, and custody of his son after giving a sermon defending the rights of gay people. The minister decides to kidnap his boy and take him to Key West to show him new ways of thinking and being.
“I like to live vicariously through other characters,” says House. “They enable me to tell an essential truth.”
In this case, the essential truths are about compassion and parenting. House says he started writing the book as his daughters approached their high school graduations and he began to face the prospect of an empty nest at home.
“It made me think about how the biggest trait of being a parent is a powerlessness – that you really have no power over anything,” House says. “No matter how hard you work to make [your kids] safe and to have everything they need, when they’re sent out into the world, you have no control.”
Although a lifelong lover of books and reading, House partially attributes his desire to become a writer to television.
“I was so lucky to grow up in a time when two of the biggest TV shows were about writers: ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and ‘The Waltons,’” says House.
The lead characters in those programs, Laura Ingalls and John-Boy Walton, showed him it was possible to come from a rural, hardscrabble background and still aspire to be writer.
“I could be a country boy and also somebody who loved literature,” he says.
“Think Globally, Act Hillbilly”
But House realizes his mountain upbringing isn’t necessarily representative of all of Appalachia, or even his part of it in southeastern Kentucky. That’s one reason why he’s feels troubled by the popularity of the 2016 book “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance.
“He makes the case that his family is the epitome of what an Appalachian family is, and it’s not what my Appalachian family was,” House says. “All I can tell is my personal story. I’m not going to say that’s everybody, and I feel like [Vance’s] book does that.”
House says he doesn’t believe Vance has any malicious intent, but he says “Hillbilly Elegy” lacks the proper historical context to give people a better understanding of mountain culture. House recommends Ron Eller’s “Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945” as a better primer on the region and its challenges.
That’s not to say that House isn’t aware of the shortcomings of rural mountain people. He says anybody who truly loves a place, especially writers from that place, must have the courage to critique it.
“You have to be somewhat of an outsider to articulate all the complexity, especially when you are thinking about literature about rural people,” House says. “There’s a real danger of either romanticizing or vilifying. Both of those things are really dangerous and wrong, and I think a good writer just wants to write about that complexity and get at the nuances.”
House remains fully grounded in his native Appalachia. He says he embraces the term “hillbilly” with a sense of pride even as some people level it as an insult against mountain people.
But House is also committed to embracing the wider world. A sign in his dining room even says “Think globally, act hillbilly.” House says that sentiment echoes the message in one of his favorite pieces of literature. In “The Brier Sermon,” Appalachian writer Jim Wayne Miller’s main character implores his people to think ocean to ocean, not just ridge to ridge in their native mountains.
“What he’s saying is that we can celebrate the local, and we can support the local, and be as much a part of our local economy and our local community as possible,” House says. “But we can also be global people. We can also be people who travel and who consume information from all over the world. We don’t have to chose between the local and global.”