by Sarah Einstein
I am standing in the ruins of the town of New Gad, West Virginia, which rose and fell in the empty basin of what was once the Summersville Lake in an imagined future. Two-headed deer and the occasional zombie-like thing shuffle by, but they’re easy pickings, even though I fight with a tambourine encrusted with knife blades. Mostly, though, I comb through the beached houseboats and old bait shops looking for any useful thing: a knife, a tin of dogfood, an old cash register, a stack of clipboards, a life preserver, a mutated rat to eat. It’s hard times in the version of West Virginia imagined in Bethesda Game Studio’s Fallout 76.
I’m put in mind, as I wander the virtual lakebed, of Sarah Beth Childers’ excellent essay, “Boat Stories,” from her collection Shake Terribly the Earth. She writes beautifully about canoeing with her family on Beach Fork Lake, another one of the Corps of Engineers’ projects that drowned a town as part of a flood control effort. “Several decades before the state government bought the land for the park… a piece of that land was Grandpa’s family farm,” she writes. “‘If you look real hard over there,’ Grandpa said, pointing along the lakeshore to a patch of briars and trees, ‘you can still see one of the trees from our old apple orchard.’” Her father rows Sarah Beth and her siblings across the lake in the August heat. “I paddled away up front… My sisters scanned the hills for rare songbirds and deer and chatted quietly about boys.”
Sarah Beth and I grew up about fifteen miles and fifteen years apart, in very different versions of Huntington, WV. I lived in town and grew up during a particularly prosperous period. She grew up what locals call “out Wayne,” a more rural area, during the start of the economic downturn that still plagues that part of the state. When we write about home, you wouldn’t recognize our pieces as being set in the same place; my stories could happen anywhere, hers could only happen there. Only the physical descriptions of the town and the countryside agree.
When the Corps of Engineers built the Summersville Dam, they had to flood the town of Gad just as they’d flooded Sarah Beth’s family farm. Usually, when they do this, the dam and the lake are named for the town that’s lost, but although Gad Lake might have been okay with the nearby townsfolk, Gad Dam almost certainly wouldn’t have been. The West Virginia Sarah Beth—and most folks—come from is God-fearing. The one I come from was not.
In my stories, there are Seders instead of Easter dinners and nobody gets saved, except once from a bear, and then by smart thinking and not God. There was always money for what was needed, and often money for what was simply desired. I had a granny, but she wasn’t quaint and she didn’t quilt. When my father drove to the mine, he wore a suit and came home clean. None of this is what people expect from an Appalachian story. As a result, I’ve sometimes been told I can’t call myself an Appalachian writer, though never by Sarah Beth. We are friends, and we hold one another’s versions of home as dear as we hold our own.
And so I find some special comfort in the artificial West Virginia of this game; in walking the computerized hills and listening to the recordings of birdsongs. The artists who built it did their research; these are the right birdsongs, the right trees, even the right buildings. I can scavenge in the room where Kevin Oderman taught me the poetry of H.D. at West Virginia University, or visit the hotdog stand where we go with my parents when we visit, or sit in a pretty approximation of the graveyard where my mother’s parents are buried. It is home and it isn’t, in the same way that my life has been and has not been an Appalachian one.