...a powerful and outrage-making if somewhat academic analysis of the forces that have made West Virginia one of the sorriest places — statistically, at any rate — to live in America ... Ramp Hollow is not Hillbilly Elegy redux. Stoll does not relate his own story, and his book is not especially warm to the touch. But as economic history it is gravid and well made ... Stoll clings to a different vision of what the United States could be. His book becomes a withering indictment of rapacious capitalism.
The author, an academic from Fordham University in New York, confronts his subject as you’d expect a history professor to do — his book is meticulously researched and draws on much of the rich scholarship dedicated to the region. But those who associate 'academic' with 'dry' will be pleasantly surprised; the book’s prose is light and readable. Though I sometimes found myself lost in the timeline that sprawls from feudal England to modern America, I thought Stoll told a complicated, multicentury story well ... Stoll’s criticisms of the market economy are sometimes needlessly polemic. Capitalism has its problems, of course. But Ramp Hollow is sometimes so earnest that it ignores obvious complications for its core thesis ... The book’s great strength is that it acknowledges something our politics often fails to: that not everyone wants the same things or possesses the same preferences ... I disagreed with much of this challenging, interesting and engrossing book. But it made me think. And that, it seems to me, is the whole point.
By giving it a distinct pedigree, [Stoll] helps readers understand why Appalachia became poor and why it has stayed that way for so long ... Stoll is not the first academic to attribute Appalachian poverty to the influence of external forces. But his work is distinct in its emphasis on the practice of enclosure and his decision to connect Appalachia’s dispossession to the material dispossessions whites inflicted on freed slaves and that empires and transnational conglomerates later inflicted on colonial and postcolonial nations ... The book’s most significant flaw occurs late in its final third, when he veers sharply from analysis to commentary. Even so, it is a minor issue. Stoll’s insights on how Appalachia became what it is today are an important corrective to flawed commentary about a much-maligned place.
Stoll writes like he is taking a leisurely punt down the River Cam, but each sentence contains a little (or a great) item of value. He is a marginalian’s nightmare. The cruel river of dispossession guides the story. But Stoll poles off into side streams to explore entire ecosystems, always accompanied by the surrounding circumstances that make a space a place … The book is a masterpiece of panoramic history. It follows as the Black Plague, the Little Ice Age (which at 500-plus years must not have seemed so ‘little’ to those in its midst), the acts of enclosure and the state taking ultimate ownership through eminent domain.
Citing a breadth of documents, from archival letters and maps to business records and fictional accounts, Mr. Stoll, a professor of history at Fordham University, traces the assault on Appalachia all the way back to the system of enclosure in England … Mr. Stoll is an affable academic, happy to dwell in endnotes but equally adept at crafting metaphorical imagery. (‘From six miles above the earth the country looks like wrinkled paper.’) But at several points in the book I wished for more narrative juice … Ramp Hollow should be read, however, not for its policy proposals but for the compassion and historical attention that Mr. Stoll devotes to this long-maligned region.
This is a well-researched and written analysis to be added to the historiographical shelf on Appalachia, its people, and their dispossession of the land and family home place. And dispossession is what it's really all about. The mountaineers certainly deserved better.
Stoll’s resonant critique of capitalism takes many turns, examining the corn economy here and the money economy there as well as the backyard company-town garden as a free ride for the company, the rise and fall of agrarianism, and many other topics. The author closes with a friendly but pointed critique of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy as blaming the victim for systemic failures, even as dispossession has served others 'as an instrument of control, not a sign of progress.' Which is better, cornfields or clean coal? Stoll’s sharp book complicates our understanding of a much-misunderstood, much-maligned region that deserves better than it has received.