Book Review: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

I made no secret that I didn’t care for J.D. Vance’s very narrow perspective and interpretation of Appalachian folks in Hillbilly Elegy. Not only was his judgment and words lacking in basic facts and empathy, Vance veils his problematic views as some kind of virtuous self-help bible for the pernicious bootstrap ethos and hard work ethic that he believes most of us other hillbillies lack. He uses that old tired recycled conservative trope of stereotyping poverty as a moral failure. All this while willfully forgetting to mention his own entitlements inherent in the very essence of his whiteness and gender. He then instructs his readers to read his words “without filtering their views through a racial prism.”

I nearly threw my kindle across the room.

If you do read his book, I hope you follow it with alternatives including this one by Elizabeth Catte. The author dissects Vance’s book and details a careful and complex—often violent and oppressive—history of the corporate welfare that created and historically plague Appalachian communities and the activists that challenge that corruption. All too often these activists are the most vulnerable among us: Black women including Black transgender women.

Catte relays the history of when the coal mines left the prison industrial complex arrived: “In the prison industrial complex, inmates are commodities. They are bought and sold and transferred according to the cost of beds and the cost of land and the cost of the labor required to imprison them.”

“…the poor people most likely to suffer the worst effects of refinery pollution are African American, not white, but the same brutal disregard is present.”

“Mountaintop removal is an act of radical violence,” says the People’s Pastoral, our theology of liberation popular among some Catholics in the mountains, “that leaves monstrous scars across Earth’s body resembling moonscapes, dead zones on our planet which cannot be restored to their prior life-giving condition. Many people who see these wounds close up lament: ‘This is what the end of the world looks like to me.’”

“We gather in these spaces of collective dreaming to sing and bear witness with the hope that we might call into being the end of what Rebecca Scott called “the dismal banality of the dominion of coal.” In Appalachia, coal isn’t just coal. It’s the blackest part of a constellation of knowledge that tells us it is easier in our world to bury a person alive than lift her up.”

“Whatever happens next for Appalachia, there are people here who deserve similar moments of liberation from their pain and shame, to see their lives and history as something other than an incoherent parade of destruction and wretchedness. I hope that people in the region who keep fighting will, like the figures in my favorite photograph, turn away from anonymous cameras and capture their own images.”

I welcome any other Appalachian book suggestions in the comments.

“Dependency narratives fuel popular talking points among individuals on both sides of the political aisle. They are often presented without acknowledgment that corporate welfare runs Appalachia. Corporate welfare allows business to shirk their tax burdens, hoard land, and wield enormous political influence while local communities suffer. Narratives of dependency conceal the uneven distribution of wealth that haunts Appalachia and indeed, much of the nation.”

— Elizabeth Catte, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

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