I have not read J.D. Vance’s multiple-award—winning 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis for a couple of reasons:
- I usually avoid “Poor me, I had a rough childhood” stories.
- There are just not enough hours in each day for reading all the books.
I saw the book on lots of “Best Books of 2016” lists and was therefore surprised to see that the recent Netflix movie adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, has drawn so much negative publicity.
Most of the criticism seems to center around the feeling that the book and, particularly, the film, provide a facile picture of what must be understood as a multi-faceted, complex situation.
Here’s a compendium of that criticism.
Novelist Kayla Rae Whitaker writes that she’s “from eastern Kentucky, not far from where Vance’s family originates.” She describes Vance’s book as the “old story of America’s weird, craven Son of the Soil.” Here’s the focus of her criticism of the book and its movie adaptation:
The story it offers is one of people who cannot help or save themselves—from laziness, from addiction, from a failure to develop the self-respect necessary to “pull themselves up” within an economy and social system that prevents them at every turn. The film is just another addition to a narrative that is managing to dig a trench between this region and the rest of the country, a divide that will continue to snarl elections and deal further damage to a population that has taken more than its fair share of abuse. And in a year that saw the Biden-Harris ticket win by thinner than anticipated margins, we need to take this opportunity to understand the region as more nuanced than the blighted backcountry that popular media pushes—and that liberal readers and viewers, amazingly, tend to believe.
Lorraine Berry’s article includes a few links to other interpretations of Hillbilly Elegy and what she calls “the book’s troubling politics”:
But other narratives exist. In novels and nonfiction, a working class emerges that is as ethnically and politically diverse as the rest of America. Here are eight books that offer a more honest approach.
Richard Brody, movie critic for The New Yorker, writes about Howard’s movie “the thinness of the adaptation arises not only from where the movie doesn’t go beyond the book but also from what, of its source material, it chooses to leave out.”
This article by Leah Hampton carries the tagline “For centuries, national mythology has emphasized rural America’s supposed masculinity. It has caused incalculable damage.”
Hampton says that she still lives in rural Appalachia, and she invokes both her own experience and that of singer Nina Simone, whose childhood house still stands nearby, to argue “if you know this place like I do, female creativity will be at the center of your understanding of Appalachia. Women like Nina Simone epitomize our artistic traditions and folkways, our music, literature, and collective inner life.”
Furthermore, “For two centuries now, we have been taught to foreground the men who settled and worked here, and that depiction has damaged us, both in our internal understanding of our identity, and in the way the rest of the world treats us.”
“The complex realities of subsistence escape ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ But as far back as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights,’ filmmakers have been turning a discerning eye on destitution.”
This article is by Alison Stine, whose novel Road Out of Winter is one of the eight books Lorraine Berry suggests reading instead of Vance’s book in the Los Angeles Times article linked above.
From one of the very first shots, I knew the Appalachia of this film was not going to be the Appalachia that I, my family, or my friends know: When young Vance rescues a turtle crossing the road, he carries it off with him on his bike. Any self-respecting Appalachian knows you bring the turtle across the road to where it was headed, you don’t take it off its (likely egg-laying) path.
Stine emphasizes throughout that the Hillbilly Elegy narrative, both the book and the film, fails to consider the experience of Black people and women caught up in the cyclic poverty and family trauma of the region. She explains that some people advised her not to write about Hillbilly Elegy because doing so would just give the book and film more publicity. But she argues that such people misunderstand her reason for speaking out: “This is a paycheck, and I need a paycheck. Part of being a writer in Appalachia since 2016, when “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir” came out, is refuting this man.”
I’m going to let Stine have the final word here:
No one who is actually poor is going to look at this movie as a roadmap, but people who are in positions of power to deny money and opportunities may. To only laugh at this movie is a mistake, and undercuts its danger, both of spreading inaccurate myths about poverty and completely overshadowing (and disbelieving) the stories of women, BIPOC, disabled people and queer people living in the region and in poverty throughout America.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown