I’ve made it a point NOT to read Hillbilly Elegy and I don’t plan to watch the movie, either.
Initially, I thought I should read the book. I’m an Appalachian author. I aim to read widely in the literature of these mountains. But the whole idea of that book just rubs me the wrong way. I know there’s plenty wrong with the region. As there is with EVERY region. The notion that Appalachia is somehow unique because there’s poverty, addiction, violence, and just plain ole ugliness is silly.
There’s a line in the book description referring to the author’s family that says, “never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.” Shoot. You can substitute just about any other part of America and say the same thing. Look to any place that’s experienced boom and bust and you’ll find a legacy of hardship.
There are plenty of things that make Appalachia in general and West Virginia (the only 100% Appalachian state) in particular unique. And while we shouldn’t gloss over or ignore the hard things, there’s so much more to the place than stereotypes.
I’m incredibly proud to be a seventh generation West Virginian (although that first generation were actually Virginians since the state had yet to secede). And while I couldn’t wait to get off the farm and explore the world when I was in high school I’ve gotten over the notion that there’s anything better out there. Now I can’t imagine living anywhere other than among these ancient mountains worn down by time and turmoil but still richer and more beautiful than anywhere else I know.
And I love the place and the people warts and all.
So here’s my recommendation. Ditch Hillbilly Elegy and pick up a copy of Dirt by Mary Marantz. She went to Yale, too. And she grew up just south of where I did in West Virginia. She experienced hardship, poverty, a dysfunctional family, self-doubt, and that fear that rises up in us all that we’re simply never going to be good enough.
But what she found through all of that filthy, grubby, messy brokeness was . . . beauty. Deep roots. A sense of self. And ultimately–a strength rising from the dirt.
Now that’s the kind of story I expect from another West Virginia girl.