Award-winning poetry book tells story of Appalachian nurses

Karen Kotrba

Karen Kotrba

Karen Kotrba’s Appalachian roots and admiration for her mother’s long nursing career intersect in an unusual location in Kotrba’s new award-winning book of poetry, She Who is Like a Mare.

Kotrba, who lives in Columbiana, is an adjunct professor of English at YSU. The book has received a Book of the Year Award from the American Journal of Nursing and has been nominated for a Weatherford Award, which recognizes books that focus on the Appalachian South.

The book focuses on Mary Breckinridge, a well-to-do Kentuckian who in 1925 founded the Frontier Nursing Service. At that time, there were no roads in rural Appalachia, and most babies were delivered by “granny” midwives using folk medicine, Kotrba said. The high infant mortality rate compelled Breckenridge to set up a main clinic and six surrounding clinics to serve the sparsely populated rural area of eastern Kentucky. Although the horse-riding nurses started with obstetrics, rural folk often asked them to do double duty, so the nurses soon became the general practitioners for many mountain people, requesting surgeons when necessary.

Kotrba became fascinated with the story. Although she had written literary essays and fiction before, the experiences of these women, the rural atmosphere of the Appalachians and the abundance of unique characters inspired her to create a sequence of persona poems, rather than a strictly historical narrative.

kotrba book“I just came to like poetry – the challenge of the smaller canvas, since I’m not writing anything epic in length,” she said. “I wanted to hear more daily details about the nurses and their patients, and persona poems seemed to be the way to do that; just to do all this research and then sit with that information for a while, see who spoke and think about what it would have been like if I had been a nurse in 1925 and worked for the FNS.”

Each poem tells a story, and the poems are from the viewpoints of various people involved in the Frontier Nursing Service, including Breckinridge herself, nurses, couriers – young, female volunteers who took care of the horses, and even from a horse’s point of view.

The title of the book comes from a poem about Epona, a Roman goddess of both horses and fertility. Epona translates to “she who is like a mare.”

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