A while back a friend asked me why I don’t base my novels on the colorful world of Appalachia, which I grew up in. My answer is, and remains complex. At the time I said, somewhat as a joke, that it has already been covered in J.D. Vance’s autobiographical book, Hillbilly Elegy. Another reason is that I would have to write honestly (like Vance did) even if it were fiction and that would create a lot of personal problems for me. I’ve already offended huge tribes of people by what I’ve written here. Now the book has been made into a movie. While I read the book, I have not viewed the film yet, and not sure I will. I did see that Vance helped Ron Howard direct it so the two must be similar. If I read the book, wouldn’t watching the movie be just like re-reading the book?
Because I am from Appalachia and (somewhat related) was an evangelical for three decades, most of my family and childhood friends are politically conservative. Some so far to the right that it would make Steve Bannon blush. So, out of respect to them, I view right wing media outlets daily to hear the same information that they hear. I also view more dependable (when it comes to truth) news outlets such as NPR and AP Wire so I know what is going on in the real world. Personally, I am tired of red Vs blue, conservative Vs liberal labeling. I don’t think it is helpful any more, only divisive. I have no political party preference.
Since the release of the film Hillbilly Elegy, there has been a lot of criticism on the right that it stereotypes the white folks of Appalachia as lazy and dysfunctional. Hmm, there is so much to say about that. I will simply say that those same right wing sites, including the more mainstream Fox News, often paints the black community in similar broad strokes, but that doesn’t appear to make them feel the same ill ease.
Growing up in that area, we were super sensitive about such stereotypes. We didn’t even take fondly to the Beverly Hillbillies show because my mom said it made us look bad. Oddly, having just watched the Beverly Hillbillies pilot for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I realized that they were not from Appalachia at all but from the Ozarks in East Oklahoma. Makes sense now as we had no oil in East Tennessee and Jed Clampett did not discover coal on his homestead.
I enjoyed the Hillbilly Elegy book so much because it was familiar, in a creepy way. No, my family were not as poor or dysfunctional as Vance’s, but it was all around me. I knew plenty of people, some relatives, who could have fit in his book. As a PA student in Eastern Kentucky (for a year) I witnessed it daily.
But here’s the caveat. Every community on the planet has their ills . . . and their wonderful culture. It is true for the poor white folks in Appalachia. It is true for Rich white, Asian, or whatever in Beverly Hills . . . or Seul. But it appears that each community tries their darndest to hide their dirt. If you want to make enemies quickly, then throw back the rug, which is covering that dirt. The racists only show the dirt of a cultures they don’t like, throwing a rug over their glory.
Personally, I like dirt . . . sort of like Pig-Pin. It isn’t because I like gossip or gloat in others’ misery. It is because I love truth and honesty. I have dirt. When a culture covers its ills, it begins to live in a magical, artificial world. I dislike phonies. When people say they miss the “good old days,” it is because their memory of those days was magical, not realistic. If you read the New Testament without the modern American filters you would see that Jesus disliked phonies the most. I’ve been a phony before and am still I’m sure. I think it would be a better world if we were honest about our humanness, both the ills and the glories. If you think that you should not show the dark side of poor white people in Appalachia unless you also show their bright side (and Vance does show a lot of the good side, if you just look for it), then the same is true for the poor inner city blacks, or Muslims, or whoever.
But the actors are so talented, Glenn Close, Amy Adams . . . hmm, I think I must watch the film.
One response to “Ramblings (snippet): Hillbilly Elegy-The Glory of Dirt”
Mike – I read the book which I enjoyed and have seen the movie. The movie was good but as is often the case, it is merely a shadow of the book – not much of the parts re: culture that I appreciated, just the story line. Didn’t give me the emotional reaction I got reading the book.