Written By Elaine Maimon
His latest book, Twilight in Hazard: An Appalachian Reckoning (Melville House/Random House/Penguin, 2021) tells riveting stories that illuminate an often-written-about but little understood region of the country.
Alan brings a rare insider/outsider perspective to a pivotal period in Appalachian history: 2001-2006, when he served as the one-person Bureau Chief for the Louisville Courier Journal. That was a time when Hazard and its environs dealt with the demise of the coal industry, the heightening of the Oxycontin epidemic, and the political shift from purple to raging red.
I’m an aficionado of Acknowledgments because it’s there that an author recognizes his intellectual community—the voices he hears in his head as he writes. An author’s Dedication differs from Acknowledgments by identifying those he has written the book for rather than those who have influenced the writing. Alan’s Dedication reads, “For my children”: his two Kentucky-born stepdaughters, his sixteen-year-old and seven-year-old daughters, and his two-year-old boy and girl twins. While those mentioned in the Acknowledgments are internal voices encouraging the writer, the Dedication refers to actual words, songs, and cries forming the background of Alan’s home writing environment, especially audible during the COVID-lockdown. Alan obviously possesses powerful abilities to focus and concentrate. The meaning of the Dedication is to affirm his vision of the future. Here is what Alan writes at the conclusion of Twilight in Hazard:
“We have to attack the historical and structural forces that keep people in poverty. We have to combat the notion that people and places are irredeemable, by telling their stories. Only then will we have a chance of becoming the most righteous version of ourselves”—and will Alan’s vocal children have a chance to live in a better world.
Back to the intellectual community referenced in the Acknowledgments, Alan’s tribute to his wife is essential to understanding the book: “I knew the biggest challenge that I faced with this book was getting a positive review from my wife, Angela, a Harlan County native who understands the complexities of her home region as well as anyone. Thankfully, she liked what she read, and her input and ideas helped make the manuscript stronger.”
Twilight in Hazard is compelling and analytical, but it is also a subtle personal story with Alan’s love for Angela and empathy with her family as a backdrop. Of course, with a mother’s optimism, I’ve jumped ahead to the ten-part Netflix series based on the book, with Ryan Gosling playing Alan and Emma Stone playing Angela.
Alan’s Acknowledgments continue:
“The rest of my family has also been amazingly supportive. I am lucky to have parents and a sister who are always available to talk about my work, writer to writer.”
The Maimons are a family of writers. And it’s no surprise that Alan’s wife Angela is also a member of the club, writing frequently for her home-town Harlan newspaper. By the way, these smaller papers are increasingly important, given the abandonment of the region by the Louisville Courier-Journal. One of Alan’s themes is what media columnist Margaret Sullivan calls “…one of America’s most serious problems: the decline of local news. This book, with its indelible sense of place, may break your heart but it may also strengthen our collective resolve to find solutions to this crisis before it is entirely too late.”
As Alan testifies in his Acknowledgements, he grew up in a family that discussed writing, reading, and local news. Before he could read anything else, he read the Phillies’ box scores in the Philadelphia Inquirer mainly to gain ammunition against his father’s mantra that the Phillies were “bums.” While we may have differed on the subject of unconditional support for hometown teams, my husband and I were in complete agreement that our daughter and son would always think of themselves as readers and writers, never remembering a time when they couldn’t do either. One example: We kept a shopping list fascinated to the refrigerator with a magnet. If either Gill or Alan—or the two together through combined efforts—could communicate something they wanted through drawings, letters, or a combination of both, we would buy it.
When Alan was in eleventh grade, a wise history teacher at his high school assigned a page or two of reflective writing every day. I remember picking up one of Alan’s drafts and thinking to myself, “Oh, my, this kid is fluent and will go far.
Another parenting action that my husband and I are proud of is that we never put pressure on either of our children to decide prematurely about a career. If students engage in deep reflection and writing in college, they will be prepared for a wide range of opportunities. At Brown University, Alan founded a humor magazine and was a double major in German Studies and Comparative Literature. That turned out to be the best possible preparation for a distinguished career as an investigative reporter and now as an investigative researcher at Centurion, an innocence project based in Princeton. Post-baccalaureate fellowships (Fulbright and Bosch) afforded Alan the total immersion in the German language that prepared him to be an assistant in the Berlin Bureau of the New York Times. His early love of sports (remember those box scores) opened the door to covering athletics in Europe and, finally, to a byline story on the front page of the Sunday NY Times about the trial of former East German swimming coaches for the doping of East German female swimmers.
And now Alan has made his family of writers very proud. Twilight in Hazard is the result of decades of writing and reflection. Through compelling story-telling—and subtle humor, as appropriate--it illuminates a poorly understood region and opens the possibility for transformations there and throughout the nation.
Seven-year-old Rosie Maimon joins our family of writers, as she reviews the publication of her first-grade book of writings.