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Appalachia needs a new economy, not an elegy

Ron Howard is making a movie based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”

This is not a good thing.

It will no doubt be a very well-done movie. Howard’s resume includes “Apollo 13,” ‘’The DaVinci Code” and being brought in to rescue “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” But it’s not a movie that is likely to be helpful to those of us in Appalachia.

Vance’s book certainly told truth — his personal truth about growing up in an unstable family in southern Ohio and seeing lots of people who simply decided not to work and take advantage of welfare instead. That’s undoubtedly true; we’d be fools to deny that those kind of things happen. But is that the whole truth about Appalachia?

Appalachia is so poorly-understood beyond its borders that it’s painfully easy to stereotype. We see that every time some out-of-town political candidate comes to Roanoke and starts talking about coal as if the mines were next door. Most of Appalachia — which culturally covers everything west of the Blue Ridge Mountains out to the foothills of Ohio — doesn’t even mine coal at all. Appalachia is a far more diverse region than people give it credit for, sometimes even the people who live in it. That’s where “Hillbilly Elegy” the movie is likely to be so damaging. If people outside the region see Vance’s book brought to life — the drug addicts, the welfare cheats, the layabouts —and think that’s an accurate depiction of all of Appalachia, it will just become yet another stereotype for a region that’s been stereotyped long enough. It’s as if you could only watch one movie about New York and what you saw was “American Gangster.” You’d form a very different impression of the city than if you watched, say, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

The popularity of Vance’s book has prompted some literary rejoinders, pushing back against his depiction of the region. (…)

—What Appalachia needs is not another book, but an entirely new story to tell about itself. In popular culture, if Appalachia gets depicted at all, it’s in a negative way. Think “Deliverance.” Or District 12 of “The Hunger Games.” Our fear is that the movie version of “Hillbilly Elegy” will simply add to those negative portrayals.

(…)

We don’t need an elegy; we just need a new economy — and a chance to tell the world a different story than the one Ron Howard and J.D. Vance will.

— The Roanoke (Virginia) Times