When my husband first proposed moving to Appalachia in the winter of 2011, I flat out rejected the idea: “No way in HELL am I going to move to Appalachia” (which I pronounced at that time as App-a-LAY-sha, not properly as App-a-LATCH-a.)
My impressions of Appalachia as a region of unrelenting poverty, coal mining and hopelessness were vivid and very real, built not on any personal experience with the region but on images from Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 tour of Appalachia, Jon Boorman’s Deliverance and Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple’s Academy-Award winning documentary on the battles waged by coal miners against Duke Energy in the early 1970s.
Coal, poverty and banjo music. That’s what Appalachia seemed to me to be.
And then I moved to Appalachia and discovered a far more interesting place than stereotypes portrayed it to be. It’s a region with university towns like Boone, NC and cities like Asheville and Knoxville. There are vineyards in Appalachia. Though poverty is a very real issue, there is far more than coal and hillbillies here. Continue reading
We drove last week from Watauga County to Chicago to visit family for spring break. When you are in the midst of the mountains, it’s hard to gauge the magnitude of their presence. But when you drive west across four states (North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky) to get out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you begin to realize the enormity of the Appalachian Mountain range.
We began our journey out of the mountains in western North Carolina. In less than an hour, we crossed into eastern Tennessee. As we swung north, we travelled into southwestern Virginia and then back into Tennessee, where we drove along US Highway 58, the Wilderness Trail, one of the most beautiful roads in America. This road pays homage to Daniel Boone, the American hero who forged the trail through the Cumberland Gap, opening up a passage to the west.
We travel today on paved roads and through an impressively engineered tunnel at the Cumberland Gap. And it still takes us four hours to climb down out of the mountains. When the nation was young, long before there were roads and tunnels, the Appalachians provided a massive barrier to westward migration.
Snow storm heading our way – April 16, 2018
I grew up in and around one of the most stereotyped cities in America – Chicago, known today as the “murder capital” of America (a falsehood).
Then a few years ago, I moved to Appalachia, one of the most stereotyped regions in the nation (if not the most stereotyped region in America) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s not entirely filled with opioid addicts and moonshine makers. So when I first heard about JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” his memoir of growing up with “Appalachian values,” I was eager to read it. The reviews were spectacular.
From Jeffrey’s Fleishman’s review in the LA Times:
“Vance’s unapologetic autobiography, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is a poem to the hills and hollers of his childhood where a blue-collar sentiment often blames government and big business for poverty, addiction, violence and families in disarray.”
From Jennifer Senior’s review in the New York Times:
“Economic insecurity, [Vance is] convinced, accounts for only a small part of his community’s problems; the much larger issue is hillbilly culture itself. Though proud of it in many ways, he’s also convinced that it “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
From Joshua Rothman’s review in the New Yorker:
“Much of the personal story Vance tells in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ revolves around his slow and painful divorce from ‘hillbilly culture.’ Hillbillies, he writes, are proud of their ‘loyalty, honor, and toughness’; of their fierce, unpretentious patriotism; of their work ethic, their tight-knit families, and the decisiveness with which they administer ‘hillbilly justice.'”
Then I read the book.