Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Just watched this gritty documentary on dancing, fatalism, and pill-popping in coal country W.Va. Best part, hands down… one of the dudes shaking a bottle of pills, “that’s the Boone County matin’ call.” The movie chronicles the White family of Boone County, WV, who seem to be a relic of the Hatfield-McCoy era.

The movie is marked by rampant drug use, mostly snorting prescription pills like Xanax and Vicodin, and lots of casual pot smoking. This goes on during most family gatherings. In the final scene, where they are having a party out at a city park, the little kids are drinking and smoking by nightfall. During the 84th birthday party for Bertie Mae, grandmother of the family, the younger Whites slowly bust out more and more hardcore drugs, and Bertie Mae walks away saying, “drugs and computers is the downfall of mankind.”

A few county officials provide some background on the county and the White family, placing them into the context of the fatalistic coal-mining culture of the WV Hill Country. A Deputy Commissioner’s comments about West Virginia being owned by external interests, “like an African colony,” were spot on, and strangely frank coming from a Law man.

My brother commented that the film lays bare the “terrifying beauty of west virginia,” and that is damn right in my mind. “Terrifying Beauty” is such a great way to sum up West Virginia, as if “Wild and Wonderful,” the state slogan, was not honest enough. I have felt the terrifying beauty of WV since I was a child, driving to Lost River State Park for a camping trip. On the way in, we drove past a revival of snake-handlers. My recollection of that weekend is that of being brought face to face with a version of humanity that was slightly more raw than the version I knew. Memories like that from childhood really stand out.

As for West VA, I could spend years just driving around that place. I recall all of our family trips to Missouri as a young child, when we took a winding highway through the mountains instead of the interstate. And a few summers ago, when I spent a few nights camping in the Mon Forest, I recall driving up a mountain pass on US-33 in a thunderstorm. WV is stuck in time, somewhat… modernization is wished for, but rarely made to happen.

In a related move, I just ordered a box set of the Wire, which when juxtaposed (Graduate school word) with the “Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” has a lot of striking similarities… fatalism, honor codes, and an astounding level of drug abuse.

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