I grew up on the other side of Appalachia, over in Virginia. I liked “Hillbilly Elegy” too, and appreciated Vance’s sensitivity on the subject. That said, I had a couple of different reactions.
- it’s important to remember that Vance is telling a “single story” about “Appalachia” (a term that most folks from there don’t typically use). It does not, nor does Vance purport to, represent an entire swath of experiences in that region. So I caution outside readers not to overgeneralize based on this one book.
- Vance’s cultural critique is largely accurate in many ways — I recognized a lot of it too. Yet it’s easy to overinterpret cultural critique as being more meaningful than it is. Is “Appalachian culture” what keeps people there poor? Well, you could ask the same about any other disadvantaged ethnic group too. The 90s were full of prosperity-gospel types who sold those “pull up your pants” books scolding communities of color for behaviors they found objectionable. Sure, culture is part of it, but it’s so much more than that too: underinvestment in public services, education, healthcare, policing, economic opportunity, etc etc.
- This book has gotten a ton of “explain Donald Trump’s appeal” sort of coverage. I think that’s just lucky timing for Vance — Hillbilly Elegy has very little to say about Trump’s appeal, IMO. It’s more about why this segment of Americans feels put-upon and patronized by the wealthier, cosmopolitan centers that now command far more relevance in national and social life than ever before.