Saturday, July 28, 2018

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Who would you guess has the best background to write about Appalachia, a writer and historian from East Tennessee with a PhD in public history, or a venture capitalist who wrote his own personal memoir? In What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, historian Elizabeth Catte compiles the history and social history of the region to dispute J.D. Vance's role as expert after the success of his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.

There are 25 million people in Appalachia, a region stretching for about 700,000 square miles of the eastern United States. The region begins in Alabama, ends in New York, and includes portions of thirteen states, yet we persist in viewing all the residents of "Appalachia" as poor white hillbillies who vote against their own interests. Catte points out that this stereotype suits the interests of politicians and businessmen, and has been used successfully to remove people from their homes, defeat unions, and destroy the environment.

In relating the story of the myth of the "Scot-Irish" working people, the coal miners, Catte introduces some of the people who have fought for workers' rights. She also tells of photographers and writers who were sent to the area to find people who would fit the stereotypical expectations. She's angry enough at Vance's portrayal of the area and its people that she says, in contrast, she'll provide readers with her own version.

What you Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a small book with an extensive list of suggested resources. Despite its size, it's not an easy book to read because there is so much to absorb. I did not read Hillbilly Elegy. As a memoir, it certainly represents Vance's truth about his own life. But, does he represent an entire region of the country? Years ago, my father said, "Paper will sit still for anything to be written on it." It's still an excellent reminder to evaluate what you're reading, to put it in context, and look at the bigger picture. It's just my opinion, but I think Elizabeth Catte looks at the bigger picture.

Elizabeth Catte's website is

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte. Belt Publishing, 2018. ISBN 9780998904146 (hardcover), 146p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought a copy of the book.


Michelle H said...

Looking forward to reading this, Lesa. As a descendant of Appalachian folks, I was put off by Vance’s painting them with such a broad, yet too specific, stroke. Our book group also read Colin Woodard’s “American Nations,” which looked at the historical impact of the cultures that settled various parts of the country. Overall pretty interesting.

Par S. said...

Having grown up in the Appalachian foothills of Alabama I am glad to see Catte’s book. I have long resented the view that all are “hillbillies”. That’s like saying that all westerner’s are “cowboys”. Ridiculous and incorrect!

Gram said...

I put it on my library list. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

An important secondary character in my (yet unpublished) Silver Lining cozy series is from the Appalachian district (Patrice/Patsy Lynn is introduced in the second volume). Thanks for highlighting a book that presents another cultural side to this region. It will be a valuable resource for me, no question!

Eona Call

Kaye Barley said...

You know I have this book on my TBR pile. Living in Boone, NC in the Northwestern Mountains of North Carolina, it's safe to say I've learned a bit about Appalachia since moving here a little over 20 years ago. J. D. Vance's role as an expert was, in my opinion, laughable, even for a newcomer like me. I like your dad's saying Lesa - very much.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Eona, and good luck with your series!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Kaye. I think you're going to appreciate this book when you get around to it.