By now most of you have seen or heard something about J.D. Vance's best selling memoir "Hillbilly Elegy." The book was recently made into a Netflix film starring Amy Adams and Glenn Close. Both the book and the film have struck a chord with folks. Some have responded in a favorable manner, some have not.
Having read the book several years ago, I didn't have quite the same reaction as some. Brace yourself -- I wasn't offended. I'm aware that may come as a surprise to some of you.
I'm being 100% transparent, the book was decent, I finished it in a few days, it didn't really impact me in any specific manner, good or bad. The book was a memoir, not a commentary. I'll take it a step further by saying it was one man's account of his family dynamic, and in no way reflects the dynamics of an entire region. So -- yeah, it was an okay read, and I managed to keep my wits about me after completing it.
With that said, the movie was decent in aspects too. Glen Close was incredible. I'll go ahead and put this out there, her character could easily be found at any IGA east of Somerset at any given time. Truth. She was in fact the most relatable character of any. I know "Mammaw," I know her very well. I digress.
I've read some awesome pieces online in recent days that make sense of both arguments, those for and against Vance's work. I can see plausible points within both, and respect those arguments. Regardless what I read though, for or against, I'm always drawn to what I know about the region depicted in literature and film. My "people" honestly are so diverse and complex that they compliment one another. How's that for irony. I shall explain.
There's not one description that fits "us." We're a vast array of things thrown into one pot. I imagine it much like a day old vegetable soup that needs stirred now and again and heated up. Sure it's good, but it's better the next day, and even "gooder" the day after that.
We aren't all barefoot and full of tooth decay, but some of us are. We aren't all addicted and out of work, but some of us are. We aren't all living in dirt floor homes dependent on government assistance, but some of us are. That's the reality of who we are. Stereotypes aren't fun, decent, or fair. But until we address that some of them aren't fiction, we can't expect growth. That's painful even typed out, let alone read a loud, but honesty hurts. It hurts real bad.
So how should any of us react? How should any of us move forward? I feel in my heart the solution isn't easy. However, what I do know, is that the Appalachia of my lifetime, the one I've been blessed to call home most of my life, is worth it. You see even hillbillies removed from Kentucky and living in Ohio, carry gumption and pride with them. How do I know this? My aunts and uncles and cousins all left but carried "us" with them across the state line.
Street after street of "hillbillies" from Kentucky and West Virginia, building Fords and manning power plants. You can even find hillbillies in Michigan on the assembly lines at Chrysler and Jeep.
Every summer of my childhood those hillbillies would come home with metal coolers and fold out lawn chairs. They still sounded the same, they still took their coffee the same, they still laughed the same. The Appalachia I know, it isn't just a place, it's a spirit, it's a mindset, it's a heartbeat, and it certainly is a people.
So for every piss-poor adaptation meant to showcase how our people think and act -- I tend to latch hold of what I know to be true. Behind the black and white photos we all have stashed away in trunks and in sticky photo albums -- the photos that have a distinct smell and texture, you know the ones -- there are stories and love.
The Appalachia I know is made up of hard work, heart ache, honesty, courage, success and defeat. The Appalachia I know is made up of men like Frank Swain from Paint Creek and Cossie Mullins from Coxton Coal camp. The Appalachia I know created role models like Kelly Lambdin from Frakes, and Virgie Rose from Mud Creek. The Appalachia I know can't be marketed, bought, or sold. In fact it's worth is far more than rubies or gold.
You see the Appalachia I know is full of all kinds of kinds. It's as timeless as a bake sale outside of the local Walmart or the Friday night lights of a football field. It's endless boundaries engulf generations of people who pray, cuss, spit, and dwell. It's not perfect, in fact it's flawed and always will be. You can see it on full display when a funeral procession rolls through town, or a baby is born, or when someone joins the "service." It's how things are done, how things were did, and how things will be.
Appalachia is who I am, it's who you are, it's who we are. There isn't a book, film, or song that could capture any or all of it.
Erinn Williams is originally from Williamsburg, and now resides in Owensboro, Ky. The daughter of a teacher and a preacher, she hopes to make a difference through her words. She serves as a teacher's assistant in Daviess County, and writes for two newspapers in Western Kentucky. She can be contacted at email@example.com.