Bestselling author Adriana Trigiani grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The bestselling author of the Big Stone Gap series, she has written and will direct a 2008 film based on those books. She has also written extensively for TV and film.
When I was growing up in Big Stone Gap, Va., I thought the mountains were filled with magic. My family emigrated from northeastern Pennsylvania in 1968, and it was if we had moved to a whole new world as we crossed the border of Virginia into the Shenandoah Valley, past the Natural Bridge, into the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia.
The rich heritage of the Scots, the Irish, the Native Americans, the African Americans, the mighty Melungeons were held in high esteem by my family. We were Italian, and it seemed, at first, we might be the only ones. Then, my father started doing a little visiting and digging and he found more than a few “Eye-talians.”
There was the Caruso family in nearby Norton, who ran a groceria; there were families here and there who knew of a great grandfather who came over to work in the coal mines, married a lovely local girl, and stayed. Some were forced to change or shorten their Italian names to fit in; but my father soon found a vein of pride about those who shared our Italian heritage.
We had much in common with the mountain people – similar stories of hardship and survival, and ultimately triumph. My grandfather Carlo Bonicelli (my mother’s father) found work in the iron ore mines of Minnesota, and then saved to open his own shop as a shoemaker.
We shared a work ethic and a desire to take care of our families. We shared a love of music, theater and crafts. Local women made gorgeous quilts, in patterns handed down for generations, which we appreciated as both of our grandmothers were seamstresses.
I was educated in the public school system in Wise County. We were taught Virginia history beginning in fourth grade. We revered our teachers and librarians.
As idyllic as my growing up years were, they weren’t perfect. I learned first hand the desperation of poverty and the physical toll that manual labor takes on workers. I observed how nature, in its beauty, could also cause deep terror and loss when the spring floods came. I experienced the life of an outsider, which gave me a window to the world and an inner strength that helps me when I travel somewhere new. I learned there is no such thing as a stranger. Once you share your stories, it makes way for friendship and common ground.
My hopes for southwest Virginia are not that different from my father’s. He came to southwest Virginia when he was a 33-year-old man with seven children. He wanted to make a life, and provide jobs where work was needed.
We all know how that story turns out: Most manufacturing is done overseas, so places like Big Stone Gap have to work harder to attract industry. This loss takes a toll, particularly on the young, who leave to find work elsewhere.
From the outside, there is a vein of hopelessness, but when I’m home, I feel the possibilities. The Appalachians are the American rainforest, rich with history, beauty and nature at its most elegant. I hope that my home becomes a place for friendly visitors, who tour through and are awestruck, just as I was, when I first saw the mountains. You can breathe when you’re home. That’s a priceless gift in the age we live in, where information travels at the speed of sound.
Trigiani’s most recent Big Stone Gap novel, “Home to Big Stone Gap,” is now out in paperback. Her new novel, “Bella Rosa,” the first in a series, will be released in 2008.