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304 pages, Hardcover
First published January 7, 2020
I was sitting with Aunt Ruth in her kitchen, telling her that people across America were becoming interested in these parts of the Appalachian Mountains. I told her about the books and articles and the national debate about mountain communities like hers. One book, a New York Times bestseller, was just one county over, I said ….
The first expression to flash across her face was pride. She was proud to have the spotlight shine on her community. She often feels like the rest of the world doesn’t notice that she exists. That flash was quickly replaced by something akin to annoyance. ‘I bet they just call us a bunch of old hillbillies,’ she said.
I confirmed that she is right, that the term ‘hillbilly’ is thrown around loosely and descriptively.
I’m fine being open about J.D. Vance. I never fault anyone for telling their story and think that’s all of our right. I take issue with the way his book portrays the area as hopeless and broken, and really tries to frame problems as moral failings of individuals, as opposed to systems. I think in some ways our stories have very similar arcs, but the way that we explain our success differs … It took three generations of women working really hard to give me those opportunities ….
I think sometimes we fall into this J.D. Vance narrative of rags to riches, of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ and ‘if you really set your mind to it you can do whatever you want, young man,’ and that really takes out the complexity of what social change looks like and what progress looks like for an individual. I think it’s really harmful and detrimental in the long run.