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Read Across America: Favorite Books of the WVRHC Staff

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
March 2nd, 2015

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.


On March 2, the National Education Association celebrates Read Across America, “an annual reading motivation and awareness program that calls for every child in every community to celebrate reading”—March 2 also happens to be the birthday of beloved author Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel).  Since WVU has a commitment to lifelong learning, I thought today’s blog post would be a good place to celebrate lifelong reading.  I asked my coworkers in the WVRHC to share with our readers a book that they love, think is noteworthy, or that taught them something interesting.  Ten of them came up with a wide range of favorites; their choices and explanations are below.

Note:  almost all of the books recommended here can be found in the WVRHC’s main stacks, but most of them are also available in the main stacks of the Downtown Library, where they can be checked out.




1. John’s pick: The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

I pick Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, an epic saga of a Chinese peasant who struggles to raise himself and his family from poverty through hard work and perseverance during times of extreme adversity. The book reveals the world of Pearl Buck’s youth and helps to explain her lifelong attitudes towards race, politics, religion and morality. It is a great read!


2. Mike’s pick:  multiple books by Keith Maillard, a Wheeling-born former Mountaineer

1980: Alex Driving South

1981: The Knife in my Hands

1982: Cutting Through

2005: Running: Difficulty at the Beginning Book 1

2006: Morgantown: Difficulty at the Beginning Book 2

2006: Lyndon Johnson and the Majorettes: Difficulty at the Beginning Book 3

2006: Looking Good: Difficulty at the Beginning Book 4

I first heard of Keith Maillard when I began working here as a student in the early 1990s. Harold [Forbes, Curator Emeritus of Rare Books and Printed Resources] suggested I read his books. I have always been fond of coming of age tales. And as you can see one of the books in the series is called Morgantown. Harold actually helped him with some the research for that book.


3. Stewart’s pick:  Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies Published according to the True, Originall Copies, by William Shakespeare

I’m choosing Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623, as my favorite book for several reasons.  First, it’s a wonderful memorial to a great playwright.  After Shakespeare’s death, many of the actors that worked with Shakespeare took it upon themselves to gather up copies of the plays and published them so Shakespeare’s work would not be forgotten.  Second, the compilers requested that the book be published in a large format, or folio size, usually reserved for scholarly works, not for works of entertainment.  Lastly, it’s full of great stories that have stood the test of time, like Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Twelfth Night, and King Lear.  It’s a great read!

Portrait of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare



4. Anonymous pick:  Life in the Iron Mills: or, The Korl Woman, by Rebecca Harding Davis

It was such a revolutionary book for its time.  Rebecca Harding Davis was born before the Civil War and she came from an upper middle class family.  How did she know what life was like in the iron mills, to be able to write so realistically?  She never really said.  Several years ago, the WVRHC had a visiting historian doing research.  He was trying to get a feel for life in Wheeling in the mid-1800s.  I told him to read the first few pages of Life in the Iron Mills, even though it was fiction.  He told me that was exactly what he was looking for.

Rebecca Harding Davis would occasionally assume the editor’s duties of the Wheeling Intelligencer when Archibald Campbell was away.  In fact, we have a letter in his papers from her, in which she talks about editing the paper.  At one point in the letter, she says, “I have a most insane ambition in that way.”  [You can learn more about Davis and read her letter to Campbell in our previous blog post:]




5. Viktoria’s pick:  David Rawson: Ancestors and Descendants, 1636-1974, by Geraldine Sommerville and Oma H. Mills

In this book I learned my whole maternal family line back to the 15th century, and that I had an ancestor in the American Revolution and Shay’s Rebellion (and that he got from New Hampshire to Virginia just ahead of the sheriff!)

[Viktoria also recommended a few recipe books, which I thought were great enough to warrant a separate blog post in the future!]


6. Kevin’s pick:  The West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, 51 volumes, edited by Jim Comstock, legendary publisher of the West Virginia Hillbilly

The first 25 volumes contain a vast, quirky biographical and genealogical cornucopia.  Volume 7 runs from “Diss Debar” to “First Sawmill.” Under “E” you find “Elkins Lynching,” “Lloyd Hartman Elliott,” “Ellis Creek.” Page numbers refer one to more material in the supplemental volumes (old-school linking). Supplemental volumes also contain reprints of essential sources like Hardesty’s Encyclopedia, The Soldiery of West Virginia and Women of West Virginia.


7. Brandi’s pick: John W.M. Appleton’s memoir and letter book

(since this one is not a printed book, the original is available in A&M 92 and a microfilm version is available as well)

One of the most amazing items in the collection that I’ve worked with is the Appleton memoir and letter book. John Appleton served as an officer in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the famous African American regiment, during the Civil War. As a survivor of the assault against Fort Wagner, Appleton’s letters and memoir serve as excellent first-hand accounts of the attack. He also provides wonderful sketches, maps, and drawings in the letters and memoir. One letter, in particular, stands out to me. On July 18, 1863, the day of the 54th Massachusetts’s famous attack, Appleton wrote a letter to his wife, from “the head of the assault column,” while shots were sailing overhead and while the regiment was preparing to attack, bidding her and his daughter Mabel goodbye, in the event that he did not survive the attack. “Goodbye if I do not come out,” he wrote. “We are in the extreme advance against Fort Wagner…we will meet again in heaven if not on Earth.” Appleton goes on to survive the attack, although he was badly wounded. His letters and memoir chronicle the story of not only one of the first African American regiments of the Civil War, but also his feelings, emotions, and love for his family back at home.

Portrait of John W. M. Appleton ca. 1897

Brigadier General John W. M. Appleton


8. Catherine’s 2 picks:

Rebels at the Gate: Lee and McClellan on the Front Line of a Nation Divided, by Hunter Lesser

Documents in detail the first land campaign of the Civil War which took place in western Virginia (West Virginia) and includes “Rending of Virginia.” Lesser used terrific primary sources such as diaries and correspondence not referred to by many Civil War historians because they believe the war in the mountains “didn’t amount to anything” (casualty-wise I suppose). WRONG – it’s a great story.

The Life of George Washington, by John Marshall, (former Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court)

Toward the end of his political career, George Washington gave his nephew, Bushrod Washington, and John Marshall (a close and respected friend), both sitting Supreme Court Justices, most of his papers, journals and correspondence requesting they become his biographers. After Washington’s death, Bushrod fell ill leaving Marshall to the task of recording GW’s life. The volumes are not laser sharp, exciting drama and there’s no cherry tree. Sorry. But it comes from solid primary sources, including the author’s unique perspective, and it is important history.


9. Lori’s 3 picks:

Windfall: New and Selected Poems, by Maggie Anderson

A favorite collection of Anderson’s poetry that I have read many times for comfort in the beauty of her words.  Anderson’s West Virginia roots shine through in many of the poems and she is a master of imagery and emotion.

The Milkweed Ladies, by Louise McNeill

I like to read this short book in the spring.  McNeill’s remembrances of growing up in southern West Virginia in the early 1900s paint a heart-warming picture of rural life and a family full of colorful characters.

Legacy of Love, by Julia Davis

Julia Davis is the daughter of lawyer, politician, and ambassador John W. Davis.  Davis’s mother died shortly after her birth and this memoir contrasts Davis’s early life with both sets of grandparents, the Davis’s in the small city of Clarksburg and on the McDonald’s farm in Jefferson County.  My interest in this book stemmed from living in Clarksburg, but I found myself drawn to the McDonalds and the description of rural living in a bygone era.

Portrait of author Julia Davis Adams

Julia Davis Adams


10. Anonymous pick:  Folk-Songs of the South, collected under the auspices of the West Virginia Folk-Lore Society and edited by John Harrington Cox (first published in 1925; I like the 2013 edition)

This book includes the lyrics of 185 folk songs and ballads, as well as 11 pages of actual musical notation at the back of the book.  One of my favorite folk songs, “Frog Went A-Courting” (a.k.a “The Frog and the Mouse”) is represented with multiple versions of the lyrics, most of which were new to me.  I picked this book because it shows the wonderful local variations to so many songs, and makes me wonder about the lives of the people who invented, modified, and sang them.

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