Running on Red Dog Road: And Other Perils of an Appalachian Childhood - Drema Hall Berkheimer

Gypsies, faith-healers, moonshiners, and snake handlers weave through Drema’s childhood in 1940s Appalachia after her father is killed in the coal mines, her mother goes off to work as a Rosie the Riveter, and she is left in the care of devout Pentecostal grandparents. What follows is a spitfire of a memoir that reads like a novel with intrigue, sweeping emotion, and indisputable charm. Drema’s coming of age is colored by tent revivals with Grandpa, poetry-writing hobos, and traveling carnivals, and through it all, she serves witness to a multi-generational family of saints and sinners whose lives defy the stereotypes. Just as she defies her own.





When author Drema Berkheimer was just 5 months old, her 29 year old father was killed in a mining accident in the mountains of East Beckley, West Virginia. Her mother was given $1,000 in widow's pay and two days to move out of the mining camp. Berkheimer's mother packed up and moved Drema and her two siblings in with their grandparents. Drema's mother got a job in Buffalo, NY building war planes during World War 2. This memoir covers those war years (and shortly after), looking at Drema's upbringing through her devout Pentacostal grandparents. Drema's grandfather was a Pentacostal preacher who also arranged tent revivals and river baptisms. 


Red dog is burned out trash coal. If the coal had too much slate, it was piled in a slag heap and burned. The coal burned up but the slate didn't. The heat turned it every shade of red and orange and lavender you could imagine. 


In her opening author's note, Berkheimer writes that this memoir took her six years to complete. It wasn't due to any horrific memories she was afraid to face. If anything, her childhood illustrated here will likely strike many readers as beautiful, idyllic and bursting with love. Berkheimer explains that that was just what made the writing of this work so hard for her: 


I realized every family member I wrote about is dead. Except for me. And the heartbreak is they died not knowing how I felt about them. They couldn't have. Until I began to write their stories. I didn't know myself.


These words kept coming back to me as I got more and more into this memoir. I found so many moments that echoed my own upbringing in a mountain community. There's a purity of soul to people who live in these areas that I just didn't fully appreciate until I was an adult and was exposed to more a more baser kind of people. I found myself growing attached to this family and realized I was bummed none of these people were still around to be the center of such great stories! I loved how adorable Drema's grandparents were together, how it was clear they loved and respected each other deeply but weren't afraid to voice differing opinions when it was necessary. I also liked how at any given time, they could find metaphorical snapshots in day to day life that they could use to teach Drema and her siblings important life lessons and a strong moral code to live by. A moral code that encouraged tolerance, and compassion for all, handling disagreements with respect, being quick to offer a helping hand to anyone who needed it, and the importance of not being wasteful with anything. 


The whole book doesn't focus entirely on her grandparents though. Drema also talks about growing up with a deaf brother (the challenges and discrimination he had to overcome), the bond she developed with her mother over the years, memories of her childhood games with her best friend, and reminisces about interactions with traveling gypsies and mountain carnivals. Through it all, I think one thing that really made this such a fun read for me was Drema's sense of humor and her style of writing, a style that reflected her Appalachian roots. There's just the slightest vein of mountain dialect and phrasing running through her words. Not enough to be distracting, but instead enhancing the flavor of her stories. 


If you have a love of Appalachian history / culture or mountain life in general, I'd highly recommend giving this little read a try. It's a quick read, under 200 pages, but there's so much good, honest life and laughter in its pages! 



FTC Disclaimer: and Zondervan Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.