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Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll

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Yes, arguably, Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance is a book that has to be reckoned with. It was on national best-seller lists for about a year starting in the summer of 2016. And the New York Times named it one of six books to help understand Trump’s win.  And it is being made into a movie by Ron Howard. As soon as it was published, I made my really negative review public. Now, this is the second book-length response – and I hope the last. There is a solid argument for those who care about Appalachia to be pro-active and to not dignify stereotypes with responses. And, to its credit, this book does devote about 1/3 of its space to attempting to present a positive perspective on the region – after more pages of direct responses. Although most of the essays here are by mainstream academics, the editors have made a real effort to include artistic renderings of the region, in poetry and in photographs as well as traditional essays, and to include some people of color and some who identify as queer. The danger, of course, of books like this is that people will see J. D. Vance as a kind of “enemy of the people.” He is just a right-wing Republican who wrote a memoir.  I wish there were more books responding to our real enemies, books about the impact of contemporary Republican politics on Appalachia, books responding to the impact of the mainstream opioid industry on the region, books responding to the impact of state legislators on the region, and books responding to the impact of extractive industries on the region. Interestingly, like J. D. Vance, neither of the editors of this collection currently live in Appalachia – though I do feel strongly that residence or even origin does not disqualify anyone. “So often the song of this place has been reduced to a single off-key voice out of tune and out of touch. Appalachian Reckoning is the sound of the choir, pitch perfect in its capturing of these mountains and their people. This book is not only beautiful, but needed.” - David Joy. Meredith McCarroll directs the writing program at Bowdoin College in Maine and certainly wrestled with issues related to our region in her last book, Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film, published last year. Anthony Harkins is a history professor at Western Kentucky University, and also dealt with issues pertaining to the image of our region in his last book – Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (2005).

Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019. 421 pages with an Index and photos. Trade paperback.