The Roanoke, Virginia, Times published this editorial Sunday, April 28. It is reprinted here with permission.
Ron Howard is making a movie based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”
This is not a good thing.
It will no doubt be a very well-done movie. Howard’s resume includes “Apollo 13,” “The DaVinci Code” and being brought in to rescue “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” But it’s not a movie that is likely to be helpful to those of us in Appalachia.
Vance’s book certainly told truth — his personal truth about growing up in an unstable family in southern Ohio and seeing lots of people who simply decided not to work and take advantage of welfare instead. That’s undoubtedly true; we’d be fools to deny that those kind of things happen. But is that the whole truth about Appalachia?
Appalachia is so poorly understood beyond its borders that it’s painfully easy to stereotype. We see that every time some out-of-town political candidate comes to Roanoke and starts talking about coal as if the mines were next door. Most of Appalachia — which culturally covers everything west of the Blue Ridge Mountains out to the foothills of Ohio — doesn’t even mine coal at all. Appalachia is a far more diverse region than people give it credit for, sometimes even the people who live in it. That’s where “Hillbilly Elegy” the movie is likely to be so damaging. If people outside the region see Vance’s book brought to life — the drug addicts, the welfare cheats, the layabouts —and think that’s an accurate depiction of all of Appalachia, it will just become yet another stereotype for a region that’s been stereotyped long enough. It’s as if you could only watch one movie about New York and what you saw was “American Gangster.” You’d form a very different impression of the city than if you watched, say, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
The popularity of Vance’s book has prompted some literary rejoinders, pushing back against his depiction of the region. First came “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” by Elizabeth Catte, a historian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley. More recently comes “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy,” a collection of essays by scholars and community activists in the region, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. These rebuttals are all well and good, although they do tend to be a bit ideological. Catte is a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, hardly typical in Appalachia, or anywhere else. The New York Times reviewed “Appalachian Reckoning” and found that “for every essay . . . that’s provocative, another is unreadable,” stuffed with academic language about ““wider discursive contexts.”
Given all this talent, technology companies ought to be competing to locate in Appalachia, not acting as if it didn’t even exist. These are the stories we need to be telling the world — that we are a topographically-challenged and economically-challenged part of the country that is populated by smart, hard-working people.
We don’t need an elegy; we just need a new economy — and a chance to tell the world a different story than the one Ron Howard and J.D. Vance will.