Appalachian Reads

Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by J.D. Vance is a title you may recall hearing or reading about around the time of the 2016 contentious presidential election.  The talking heads on every radio and TV news show certainly went on and on about what Vance put forth in his “Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”.  Reviews of this title appeared from, Amazon to the Washington Post.  And, it can still be found on best seller lists.

This book caught my attention partly due to it notoriety.  The other reason is the word hillbilly. That word flashes back to my childhood growing up in a lucky-to-have one stoplight town in Holmes County, Ohio.  For those of you who are not familiar with Ohio, that county is now very well known for its Amish communities.  It is also lies on the eastern edge of Appalachia.

Hillbilly may be seen as a badge of honor for some.  Or, the word paints a totally negative picture for others.  I always heard the word used in a derogatory manner as a kid.

Vance introduces readers to his family as he recalls growing up in Middletown, Ohio.  His Mamaw* and Papaw, who were originally from eastern Kentucky, moved to Ohio in hopes of landing a job.  She was 13 and pregnant at the time.  He was only 16.  Papaw found work at Armco Steel and worked there until he retired.  *Some of you may find Mamaw’s harsh language offensive.

J.D.’s mother, the result of that early marriage, did very well in school.  College was on her horizon.  That is, until she too became pregnant with Lindsay, J.D.’s older sister. Things went downhill from there.  J.D. lived through many of his mother’s husbands and live-ins.  When J.D. was 12 he had already suffered through much fussing and fighting in his short years.  The breaking point came when his mother tried to kill herself and J.D. by wrecking the car.  He managed to escape.

His escape led him to living with his Mamaw and Papaw.  Mamaw, a colorful character in her own right, was not easy on J.D.  She made sure J.D. knew he could do anything he set his mind to.  Papaw worked on math problems with J.D. at the kitchen table.  J.D.’s life slowly improved as did his grades.  He even moved into an advanced math class taught by a person who saw J.D.’s potential.

Mamaw saw to it that J.D. got a job as a cashier at a local grocery.  It was at this job he began noticing things about the people in his town.  His observations led to searching out information.  J.D. made the thoughtful decision that he wanted to be like his hard working, although not perfect, grandparents.

All this lead to the idea of attending college.  It was suggested he join the military to learn the discipline that had been missing in his life.  J.D. spent four years in the Marines.  He returned home ready for college.

J.D. Vance earned a degree at The Ohio State University in two years’ time.  His thoughts then turned to law school.  After his successful time at Yale University and a law degree under his belt, Vance decided to share his story and thoughts about his life and what it took for his to break the stereotype of how he was raised.  Hillbilly Elegy is that book.  Love it or hate it, you may just start looking at others differently and with more understanding.

On the very same day I found Hillbilly Elegy on the shelves of Tanglewood’s library, I picked up Gray Mountain (2014) by John Grisham.  Little did I know I was selecting a title that was closely related in many ways to Hillbilly Elegy albeit a fictional account set also in Appalachia.

Grisham’s story opens in New York City right after the 2008 fall of Lehman Brothers.  29-year-old attorney Samantha Kofer, used to working 100-hour weeks, suddenly finds herself out of a job.  But, she was one of the lucky ones.

Samantha was offered a furlough from huge Wall Street firm where she has worked for three years.  She will remain under contract for a year with no paycheck that is if she agrees to intern for a qualified nonprofit.  Samantha would keep her health benefits with no promise of a job at the end of twelve months.  She takes the deal.

Finding a nonprofit was not as easy as Samantha thought.  She was turned down by nine agencies in one day.  She was not used to that kind of rejection.  Agency number ten, the Mountain Legal Aid Clinic in Brady, Virginia, offered her an interview.  Samantha rented a car and made the drive to Brady.

Samantha’s introduction to Brady happened a few miles outside of town when she was stopped for speeding and taken to the local jail.  She is “rescued” by Donovan Gray who introduces himself as her attorney.  He tells her all charges have been dismissed.  Turns out Donovan has a very influential friend in Brady.

On their way to town from the jail, Donovan gives Samantha a quick tutorial about coal companies and strip mining.  He also tells her why locals stay and work in Brady.  Once she is safely in town, she heads to her interview.  It is at the interview she meets Mattie Wyatt, a Brady native.  Mattie is the founder of very low budget Mountain Legal Aid Clinic which is located in an abandoned hardware store.  Turns out Mattie is also Donovan’s aunt.

During her interview with Mattie, Samantha picks up that Mattie is not real thrilled to have an intern, especially one from the big city and has no clue what the locals face in the daily lives.  Once the interview ends Mattie invited Samantha home for dinner.

It is over the kitchen table the sharing about personal lives begins.  Samantha learns a bit of why coal companies are considered the bad guys.  It is not a pretty picture.

The action begins to pick up, for the reader and Samantha, as characters are introduced in to the storyline. I cannot say this is Grisham’s best novel.  It is all built around the issue of strip mining.  The rape and destruction of the land and the lives of those who work and live in coal country.

Guessing there may be a sequel in the works since there was not a strong ending.  Samantha was just getting her act together and Boom!  Story ends with what appears to be a bright future for Samantha.

If you have never seen what strip mining can do to a mountain, Grisham’s observations are pretty much spot on.  From what I have personally seen, strip mining is ugly and disrespectful on many levels.  Reading Gray Mountain, you may decide which side of the issue you want to support.


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