There are innumerable people who claim to now “understand” my roots and the culture of the Appalachian region since Hillbilly Elegy came out in 2016. As a child, I remember witnessing my father lose himself in music composition on the piano or my grandfather carefully tending to his enormous garden. Instead, they conjure up images of Appalachia as depicted in J.D. Vance’s novel, in which the entire region is populated by violent, impoverished whites who have no one to blame but themselves for their plight.
Book Riot had a great review of Hillbilly Elegy when it first came out, explaining why the book is so controversial. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, has been out for four years, but now we have to struggle with Ron Howard’s film adaptation, starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams. The film version of Vance’s story carries over many of the concerns from the memoir, exposing his negative depiction of Appalachia to a new audience. The truth is that no single voice can adequately portray an entire region, so instead of reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’ve gathered fifteen novels that will each provide you with an insightful look into Appalachia. Appalachian literature has a long and varied history, and this list just scratches the surface.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
Start with What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia if you’re still wondering why Hillbilly Elegy is so problematic. Catte’s argument is laid out in a straightforward and easy-to-follow manner in just under 150 pages. The back of the book includes a list of further Appalachian resources!
Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy Edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll
Appalachian Reckoning has a diverse cast of characters, many of whom take issue with Vance’s depiction of life in the Appalachian region in his book. This book examines Hillbilly Elegy’s problems from a variety of angles and contrasts them with the authors’ own experiences in the area.
Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place by bell hooks
The only Appalachian elegy you’ll ever need is Bell Hooks’ Appalachian Elegy. She criticizes the exclusion of Black Appalachians from Appalachian narratives in this collection of poetry.
Affrilachia by Frank X Walker
As the former Kentucky Poet Laureate and proponent of “Affrilachia,” Frank X Walker, has done a great deal of work in the state’s literary community to support and encourage other African-American writers. Affrilachia is a superb book of poetry, and a good place to begin exploring the work of Alice Walker.
The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson
Opulence, a southern Black hamlet in Mississippi, is the subject of Crystal Wilkinson’s award-winning novel. Within the first few pages, Wilkinson’s beautiful style will grab your interest and enthrall you in her story.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels
The Prettiest Star is the story of Brian, a young gay guy living with AIDS in the 1980s, published by one of my favorite indie publishers, Hub City Press. Brian has nowhere else to go after losing his friends and partner to the sickness, so he goes to his parents’ house in Appalachian Ohio, where they prefer to overlook their son’s sexuality.
Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal by Silas House and Jason Howard
In Something’s Rising, those who have been affected by mountaintop removal mining are the focus of a series of oral histories. It is clear from the stories below that this practice has a direct impact on people’s lives.
Any Other Place by Michael Croley
Michael Croley’s debut novel, Any Other Place, gives us a glimpse into the lives of his characters and makes the seemingly insignificant choices they must make seem monumental. As a Korean American, Croley has a unique viewpoint on race, identity, and belonging that inspires his writing.
When These Mountains Burn by David Joy
Appalachian males who have been affected by the opioid problem are featured in When These Mountains Burn. Once you’ve completed reading this work of Appalachian Noir by Joy, you’ll want to go to the bookstore and get his backlist.
LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia Edited by Jeff Mann and Julia Watts
Appalachian LGBTQ writers are featured in this collection, which offers readers a glimpse into the complexities of queer life in the region. A haunting quality permeates each piece, making it difficult to put down even after the final page has been read.
Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
Asheville, North Carolina’s historic Grove Park Inn is the setting for Even As We Breathe. The story takes place during World War II. His destiny is irreversibly altered by this summer work, which marks a turning point in his life.
F*ckface: And Other Stories by Leah Hampton
Leah Hampton’s debut collection of short stories exposes us to a diverse cast of individuals, all of whom are faced with seemingly insignificant choices. Even if these characters don’t realize it, the decisions they make have an impact on the rest of their lives, for better or worse. As you turn the pages of these tales, you’ll wonder how Hampton managed to keep you guessing until the very end.
Step Into the Circle: Writers in Modern in Appalachia Edited by Amy Greene and Trent Thomson
It’s a fantastic introduction to Appalachian Literature, as it features Appalachian authors writing about Appalachian authors. You’ll fall in love with each and every writer included in this project because to the beautiful photos accompanying each piece.
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
Lee Smith, one of Appalachia’s greatest writers, is the author of Fair and Tender Ladies, a novel with a strong sense of place. Ivy’s story takes a turn when she discovers she is pregnant and unmarried in a series of letters. Ivy’s hopes rise and fall as she clings to her dreams during the course of the novel.
The Third Rainbow Girl : The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia by Emma Copley Eisenberg
The Third Rainbow Girl tells the narrative of author Emma Copley Eisenberg as she comes to West Virginia and begins to build a life there. She discovers that two girls were murdered in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, decades ago. Throughout this genre-defying book, she cleverly mixes anecdotes from her own Appalachian background into the narrative.