A group of about 25 people crowded into Carmichael’s on Frankfort Avenue on Thursday night before a reading of “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy.”
I could hear bits of conversation — people talking about the candidates for the Kentucky gubernatorial primary, and whether any of them had a vested interest in any parts of the state east of Lexington.
Those in the room were looking towards what is best for Appalachia, which according to “Appalachian Reckoning” co-editor Anthony Harkins, that’s what the writers of this book hoped to do, as well.
“The book is a response to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’” Harkins said. “But it’s more than that. It’s also a look at what it means to be ‘Appalachian,’ the Appalachian identity. What is the range of experiences people have?”
“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture In Crisis,” the 2016 book by J.D. Vance, defined Appalachia for much of the nation. It was an incredible commercial success, it’s now in the midst of being adapted into a movie by Ron Howard, and the New York Times included it on its list of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win.”
While that list described Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” as “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion,” many of the writers included in “Appalachian Reckoning” argue that Vance’s portrayal of the region is limited at best and damaging at worst.
And in its presentation of diverse experiences, “Appalachian Reckoning” is a powerful retort to Vance’s sweeping generalizations in “Hillbilly Elegy” that people from the region are lazy and wholly reliant on handouts.
“Appalachian Reckoning” can veer a little academic at times, but it’s offset by really tender poems and essays.
“Notes on a Mountain Man” by Jeremy B. Jones is a stand-out; it is essentially an appreciation of the “Andy Griffith Show” character Ernest T. Bass. Jones writes:
“This is an essay about Howard Jerome Morris, a Jewish man born in the Bronx in 1919 — the classically trained Shakespearean actor who played Ernest T. Bass and whose entry on Wikipedia links to a page titled ‘Mountain Man.’
“A mountain man is a male trapper and explorer who lives in the wilderness.
“When my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather moved into the mountains where I was raised, the map labeled the area as only ‘The Wilderness.’
“In a private college full of smart, wealthy northeasterners, someone once heard me speak and called me ‘a mountain man.’ Immediately, I saw Ernest T.”
Another beautiful piece that encapsulates what it means to be an Appalachian (no matter where you end up) is Jim Minick’s “How To Make Cornbread — Or Thoughts On Being An Appalachian From Pennsylvania Who Calls Virginia Home But Now Lives In Georgia.”
“Appalachian Reckoning” is now available for purchase.