What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia: Book Review and Hillbilly Elegy Comparison

Publisher’s Summary

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

The Review

Elizabeth Catte is an East Tennessee native, with a Ph.D. in public history, which she received from Middle Tennessee State University, and co-owns a historical consulting company. Not only is she professionally qualified to write about the state of the Appalachian region today in relation to the history that fed our current issues, but she is a native and is intimate with the struggles of the residents in the poor, coal region of the Appalachians.

This book was short, a quick read, and that is really my only criticism and the reason this book is 4 stars instead of 5. I would have loved a longer book so she could go into greater detail on some of the topics she discusses. However, I understand the need to publish her book quickly on the tail of Hillbilly Elegy so that she could capitalize on its success and the conversation it ignited. It is incredibly difficult to get the mainstream media and average American to care about subjects such as this or be receptive to correcting inaccurate and painful stereotypes that Vance invoked in his disturbingly bestselling memoir.

As a historian and history consultant, Catte knows her history of the region and is a credible source for relaying that information to her readers. She takes the responsibility, where Vance negligently fell short, of setting the stage of Appalachia as it was developed through the years, the industries that took from the region, the evolution of local workers’ rights and struggles through this time, and most importantly, the assertion that Appalachia (as an immense region) is not wholly Scots-Irish or white.

She accurately describes the diversity of the region, its alignment with modern issues, and shuts down the notion of Other that so many paint Appalachians, that they genetically differ from the rest of the nation. We don’t. To paint us that way, Catte explains, is to promote eugenics (“the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”-From Dictionary.com). The idea of preventing the breeding of Appalachians through sterilization was promoted by prominent spokespeople from the area and beyond during the 1960s-70s. Eugenics was a favored idea of Nazis, FYI.

4/5 Stars

Hillbilly Elegy Versus What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Catte’s book is obviously a direct and scathing rebuttal to J. D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (my review of his book is linked). That is critical in understanding her position while writing this book. I felt similarly enraged and misrepresented after reading Vance’s “memoir” and felt somebody local to the region needed to step up and refute his claims. A better person could not have stepped up to the plate. I will thank God every day for women like Elizabeth Catte and her little (enormously important) book.

The historical perspective she frames in this book is so important to the discussion of Appalachia, coal mining, employment in the areas coal mining has left economically destroyed and/or stagnant, and the greater discussion of white insecurity in America at the moment. So often you hear the cliched phrase, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Nowhere is that phrase more chilling and pertinent than this book where Catte exposes the similarities in moments in our local history that do seem to repeat themselves and will continue to do so while these images and beliefs about Appalachians exist.

Catte explores the role of activism in Appalachia, the tactics corporations and politicians used to undermine those activists and their message. She is also honest about race in the region, the history of racism white Appalachians participated in, where Vance tried to absolve us of any blame which is grossly historically inaccurate. She relates several documented instances which inform her position on this. But Catte does absolve the region of its accused blinding whiteness. People of color do occupy Appalachia, share the history of the region, and the struggles of their profession in the coal mines, on the railroad, etc. Diversity exists here where outsiders insist it does not and they subsequently try to erase the ownership of the region of people of color, the lives they’ve built, and the inroads for the progress they’ve made.

Vance excludes people of color from his memoir when discussing Appalachians and his beloved “hillbillies.” He repeatedly refers to the Scots-Irish ancestry of the region and how Appalachians have retained that genetic heritage more than any other community in the nation. Catte astutely accuses him of racist generalizations by erasing people of color from the region and culture, not to mention the settlement of French, German, English, Swedish, Scandinavian, Dutch, etc., and his tendency to favor the eugenics theory, that the shortcomings of Appalchians are a result of shared, flawed genetics. His book, when viewed through this lens, should scare the shit out of us. Because we are not genetically different from the rest of the nation though the notion is so widely shared by outsiders. Because sterilization has been considered to limit our population. Because corporate interest is such a powerful force with our government at all levels.

Catte goes further in her accusations against Vance’s theories on the area by charting his preference for sources favored by white supremacist and nationalist individuals. The eugenics theory and practice, “brain drain,” the proud Scots-Irish genealogy should all be viewed as red flags of his priorities, especially as there is no doubt he will run for a political office in the next five years.

K.O.!

Overall, her authority shines through and makes Vance’s novel and theories pale in comparison. His lack of research, lack of insight into the sociopolitical structure of the Eastern Kentucky area he references repeatedly, and insistence on their (consequently his) genetic purity really expose him for what he is, a politically ambitious, pseudo-intellectual with white supremacist tendencies. Even more stark after reading Catte’s response is the insincerity of Vance’s assertions that writing his memoir did not mean he intended to be a spokesperson for the poor, white working class. Yet he continues to tour and speak on the topic, he published a book on the subject knowing very, very little of the truth behind the struggles in the region. It is glaringly obvious when read in conjunction with Catte’s rebuttal that he intended to capitalize on national insecurities using Appalachians to justify white insecurity and nationalist trends.

In short, read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, not Hillbilly Elegy.

Hillbilly Elegy: Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy Book Review Book Cover

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

In the introduction to Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, he admits he finds the existence of this book “absurd.” After reading it, I have to agree with him. This review will read a little bit like a rant.

A Little Context

Jackson, Kentucky is the seat of Breathitt County, a small town in a big county nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Built on the banks of the North Fork Kentucky River, Jackson was once a bustling timber and coal town. The decline of the coal industry meant coal jobs vacated Jackson in the 70’s/80’s. Fairly recently, however, the coal temple located off Hwy 30 W outside Jackson city limits has opened back up, igniting a spark of memory and hope in the locals.

The town of Jackson and the communities in the surrounding county don’t have a lot of things to make us hope these days. Our children continue to be our biggest source of inspiration. We transfer our broken dreams onto their small shoulders, put all our resources into their education, their abilities, and hope they will achieve the dreams we never had the opportunities to achieve. It’s why, in the currently raging debate on statewide K-12 education in Kentucky, we so staunchly defend teachers and are willing to take on the burden of higher taxes to provide a well-funded pension system for them. Though our legislators seem to be struggling with the logistics of actually fixing said pension system using any method. Lawyers have a way of muddying these things.

Take Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Yale Law School graduate. California resident. Marine vet. Self-described hillbilly. But not really.

There Are No Hillbillies Here

I cannot find fault in all of Vance’s book or his experiences as he escapes from a difficult domestic situation. That is an understatement. He had a Hell of a childhood and his teen years seemed to have been worse. I sympathize. He had a difficult life growing up with an unstable mother and rotating cast of fathers. As he mentions (repeatedly), he was able to overcome those difficulties and achieve a happy, successful (to date) life.

But this book is not about hillbillies. This book is not about Appalachia. This book is not about Jackson, Kentucky however often he invokes our name, invokes hurtful stereotypes that weren’t true even in the 40’s when his grandparents out-migrated for work in Ohio at the tender ages of 17 and 14.

The Jackson, Kentucky he describes is not the Jackson, Kentucky I was raised in and now raise my daughter in. The majority of the book, as a memoir of an individual growing up in Middletown, Ohio, joining the Marines, then going to Ohio State and Yale Law, has nothing substantial to do with Jackson, Kentucky, Appalachia, or “hillbillies.” He has a habit through the book of imposing the bad habits and poor choices of his family members on their status as transplanted hillbillies.

Hurtful Stereotypes

Let’s be clear, his Mamaw is mentally ill. She did a heroic thing, taking her grandchildren in like that but her actions are clearly unhinged. Her birthplace has nothing to do with her described behavior and mannerisms. I lived with my Jackson, Kentucky grandparents nearly my entire life and they behaved nothing like this. Growing up in Jackson, Kentucky, attending churches, funerals, going through the school system, meeting my friends’ families, marrying another Jackson, Kentucky resident, I have never noticed this behavior as the norm of us “hillbillies.”

I lived down a holler. That’s a road off the main highway. These hollers may be one lane, paved or gravel, and the people who live up them are usually related somewhere down the line. And if they’re not yet, they will be. Hollers are basically the driveway to Appalachian communes. There are wild residents like every other community, but the majority, especially Vance’s grandparents’ generation, behave like any other person in that age group. With a little more cooperation when it comes to feeding each other, tending family farms, and delivering errant cattle.

My grandparents were church-going people, I was pretty much raised in a pew. My Granny sang hymns and my Grandpa taught Sunday school. They dressed to the nines, stockings, slicked back hair, shaved face, and copious clouds of Avon cologne and perfume. They sparred verbally but the swearing and such is not the norm for that generation. I was raised to expect soap in my mouth for uttering a bad word. To be clear, fart was considered one such bad word.

An Epidemic

The drug problem in Southeastern Kentucky ranks among the most concerning in the nation. Admittedly we rank close to Middletown, Ohio. But I don’t think the reasons behind our shared problem resonate similarly. I do think the shared opioid addiction is the reason Vance evokes Jackson, Kentucky at all. And named his book what he did, though the title and the references to Kentucky are incredibly misleading and misrepresent his content.

Misrepresents Himself

I picked up this book expecting something entirely different and relevant to my culture. It had nothing to do with us, a wasted read. I don’t share Vance’s political ideas. I can’t relate to his experiences being raised in a middle-class family, even struggling with a drug-addicted parent. Growing up in a single wide trailer for much of my childhood, then a doublewide trailer into adolescence and young adulthood, I find it hard to think of him bereft living in a non-mobile home. Being able to buy a house (still in Jackson, KY) with my husband was a huge life achievement for me.

The whole book did read as a kind of appeal for “outsiders” to not judge white, working-class men for voting for Donald Trump. And I just don’t think they need any more help or understanding in that area.

There are several conflicting ideas in Vance’s book, for instance at the end when he puts out a call for action to Jackson, Kentucky to rise up and meet the needs of our at-risk children. But he had spent the beginning of the book exalting the culture for our emphasis on family. It just reflects his deep misunderstanding of the culture and the work being done to protect our kids here in Eastern Kentucky.

Its all well and good to draw attention to social problems afflicting our area (and nation) but Vance offers very few (half-assed) pathways to solutions. In fact, he admits there are no solutions and that we can only hope to save a few. But again, Jackson, Kentucky is not Vance’s home and he doesn’t have to help us. He doesn’t have to live with these problems. Vance escaped his Middletown problems. So, why write a book with emphasis on the problems these areas are facing at all?

Final Thoughts

After reading his book, I don’t understand his intentions, except to brag that he is successful. I don’t know if he thinks of himself as a hero to poor kids in Appalachia. I hope not, that would be incredibly sad.

As I said before, I sympathize with the struggles he did endure. But I think he greatly exaggerated his position as poor. Maybe its the “hillbilly” in me but I can’t consider him poor when his grandparents were willing to step up financially in cases where they did struggle with his mother’s mismanagement of her money.

Co-Opted Experience For Gain

I grew up poor, one of three kids to a single mother working part-time at the local Walmart (not a supercenter), living in a used, single wide trailer. My grandparents were also poor, legally blind, and unable to work beyond some small-scale farming that kept us in frozen vegetables through the winter. They owned a small plot of land inherited from my great-grandfather and their house was built by some charitable organization or another.

We had food stamps, Medicaid, CHIP, LIHEAP, and welfare. You name a government social program and it probably kept us fed, warm, housed, or alive. These same programs that Vance derides as a crutch for his drug-addicted, domestically challenged neighbors provided opportunities for me that allowed me to stay with my family, kept me and my siblings together and got us through.

Lack of Awareness

These programs evolved from the New Deal Era programs targeted at defeating poverty. Obviously, that hasn’t happened but I think its a little too nail on the head to blame stagnant/declining employment and wages on social welfare as an enabler for “freeloaders.” From my work with local oral histories, I have listened to countless stories from the time period that praised the New Deal for saving the region from total collapse and starvation.

Our Problems Are Bigger Than This Book

Places like Jackson, Kentucky have other much more complex problems keeping us in the hole. Our isolated location, difficult terrain, corrupt local politicians and their large land holdings they refuse to develop/charge high rent for, and crime rate (the name Bloody Breathitt was given to us for our tendency for violence not our WWI volunteer rate, FYI) are just a few of the issues that keep us from achieving the same economic growth as the rest of the nation.

I’m not even sure Vance addressed the employment problem in Jackson, Kentucky, the fact that 30% of our population has left in the last 20 or so years. I believe he was tenuously trying to connect the loss of factory jobs in Middletown to the loss of coal jobs in Kentucky but that isn’t really a fair comparison because we are not located in an area where other industries can easily supplant lost ones. Our roads are woefully out of date, among other infrastructure concerns, and many of our cities are one bad year away from insolvency.

There is a difference in individual poverty and institutional poverty.

Frustrating

I am just a little riled that Vance tried to use my culture, my home, and my people as a way to justify his political ideologies.

I did not enjoy this book, found it to be confusing and uninteresting. His title and summary were unrelated to the actual content of the book. The author posits himself as something poor kids should emulate but he doesn’t seem to understand that kids in poverty lack the resources he had available to him, regardless of his mother’s addiction.

2/5 Stars

More Book Reviews

A Court of Wings and Ruin

Heartless

The Fiery Cross

Appalachian Gods

This week, instead of doing a #flashfictionfriday post I felt more slanted towards posting a nonfiction essay I have been working on for some time. Enjoy and hopefully next week I will get back to the fiction stuff. 😉

 

I feel compelled to write about these mountains like there is a voice inside of me that isn’t my voice but wants to be heard. I am the mouthpiece or the transcriber as it is. It is my heritage, the mystique of Appalachia, and the strange mark it leaves on all who are born here that yearns to be written. A little stain on the history of this country, this world. Appalachia is beautiful, fierce, and lonely.

When the sun rises over the Appalachian foothills, there is a strange frenzy of activity. I have heard that the safest time to be in the woods is at night because, like people, animals seek cover in the dark and prefer daytime for hunting. But I think it is more than just an evolutionary preference. The darkness of an Appalachian night is heavy like there is more in the air than dew. It is heavy like the breath of a million souls exhaling at the same time. There are ghosts in the Appalachian Mountains. And if ever there was a time they revealed themselves it was during those black nights.

People rarely write about cities and suburbs with the same romantic notions as they do about nature. Nature is an enigma, an evolving mystery, consistently surprising and confounding those who observe it. These mountains are not like cul-de-sacs. Men own their cities, they know every inch, every culvert, all mapped and laid out like a science. No one owns the Appalachian Mountains. But they hold every soul born here. They are unconquerable. Even scarred and pitted from years of strip mining and clear-cutting, there is a refusal to surrender to the appetites of men. They still loom larger and make me feel more than anything man has built himself.

For the people born there, the mountains mean protection. As a child, I played throughout its valleys, swam in the streams that bubbled from its peaks, and explored the forests that populated the hillsides. I never felt alone. There are eyes everywhere in the mountains, whispers with inhuman voices, a language not in the conventional tongue of man. It is ancient. We grew up in the shadows of gods.

Spirituality was in the very water we drank. Everyone born in southeastern Kentucky knew of the power of the laying on of hands, speaking in tongues, serpent handling, whether they believed this to be a God-given talent or the overactive imaginings of religious radicals. My grandmother claimed to have the power to drive demons from people who were possessed. I witnessed one such attempt when I was eight years old. Our neighbor had been tied to a day bed with a leather belt around his hands, holding him to the trembling bars.

There was no moon that night, no stars, low clouds made the entire valley claustrophobic and damp. He hissed at my grandmother as she came through the door, a worn Bible in both hands held out before her like a shield of faith. He spoke, but he didn’t, not in words I could understand, a faint echo in his tone. It was otherworldly, eerie. I am not sure I believe in the existence of demons, at least ones that exist on the physical plane with humans, but what I was witness to that night, I will never forget. Belief is very strongly regarded. My neighbor believed he was possessed that night. My grandmother thought she could exorcise his demons. When she left, he lay limp, sweaty, and regular. Apparently, he thought she could exorcise his demons too.

If there are demons in the world, maybe they are more likely to follow those who believe. Guilt, faith, and God lay heavy on the hearts of Appalachian men and women. They can claim atheism but religion haunts their every action, they feel the weight of God when lifting a beer bottle, the chorus of angels in explicit, secular music. It is harder not to believe, to push beyond the wall of guilt and act against traditionalism. Akin to “Catholic guilt” the people of Appalachia, more often Baptists and Pentecostals (or some form of either), carry their religion like a family heirloom, their inheritance. They did not buy it or build it, but it has been imbued with too many memories to throw away.