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.”
What Appalachia needs is not another book, but an entirely new story to tell about itself. In popular culture, if Appalachia gets depicted at all, it’s in a negative way. Think “Deliverance.” Or District 12 of “The Hunger Games.” Our fear is that the movie version of “Hillbilly Elegy” will simply add to those negative portrayals. Appalachia certainly has its problems, particularly in adapting to a new economy that puts a premium on things that the region doesn’t have — principally, a highly-educated workforce. Amazon chose to locate in Arlington, where 71 percent of the adults 25 and older have a college degree. In Buchanan County and Covington, that figure is 8.3 percent. The economics of the so-called “knowledge economy” are pretty cruel. Vance depicts an Appalachia peopled by lazy people who disdain education. “We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school,” he writes at one point. In another, he says: “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” Perhaps that’s so in some places, but there is another Appalachian story to be told — we just need a larger megaphone through which to tell it.
- Students in Southwest Virginia (the portion of Appalachia we care most about) don’t “perform poorly in school” as Vance writes. They perform quite well. The Virginia Department of Education divides the state into eight regions. In 2018, one region finished first in the state in the Standards of Learning testing in all three categories — reading, math and science. Was this Northern Virginia, the sons and daughters of the state’s most well-to-do and well-educated citizens? No. Northern Virginia finished second. Instead, the region that finished first was Southwest Virginia — from Pulaski County. And yet state officials in Richmond still dared to ask St. Paul attorney Frank Kilgore — a frequent booster for the region — whether Southwest Virginia “has the DNA to fill cybersecurity jobs.” That’s insulting, but typical.
- In 2015, Dickenson County merged its high schools into Ridgeview High School. What was the first team from Ridgeview to win a state championship? Not the football team, but the robotics team. That team went on to compete in the world championship in Detroit, in which it placed 9th out of 64 teams — and was a finalist for an award that honored enthusiasm. Vance might have known some lazy people growing up, but he sure didn’t know these kids.
- The Dickenson students weren’t even the only team from Southwest Virginia to go to the world championship last year, either. So did a team from Southwest Virginia Community College that included students from six different high schools in the region.
- Students in five Southwest localities — the counties of Wise, Russell, Washington, Bland and Norton — took part in NASA experiment that involved launching satellites into low-earth orbit.
- The American Wind Energy Association sponsors an annual contest where school teams compete to build functioning wind turbines. One school system has become — no pun intended — a powerhouse in this competition. Is this school system in Northern Virginia, which aspires to be Silicon Valley East? No, it’s Bath County, where last year, the team from Bath County High School took first place in the nation.
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.