Appalachian Reckoning is a well-reasoned response to J.D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, which many readers have assumed is the definitive commentary on the troubled region. While the editors, Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, firmly establish that they’re not attacking Vance personally, they do take umbrage with his bootstrap story, which they note is “largely devoid of analyses of broader socioeconomic and historical dynamics.” Their interest in publishing this collection is to bridge that gulf.
The book is divided into two sections — Part I, Considering Hillbilly Elegy, delves into the complex social construction of Appalachia. Some of its essays are long and scholarly, with pages of footnotes and citations, such as Lisa R. Pruitt’s “What Hillbilly Elegy Reveals About Race in the Twenty-First Century.” It’s exactly what a reader would expect from a university press. However, it dwells alongside simple paragraphs of just a few lines and photos, like “Falling in Love, Balsam Bald, The Blue Ridge Parkway, 1982” by Danielle Dulker.
Part II, Beyond Hillbilly Elegy, features more personal stories and photoessays, notably “Olivia’s Ninth Birthday Party” and “Watch Children.” Chelsea Jacks’ untitled essay about her mother’s employment with PepsiCo, and Linda Parsons’ free-verse poem, “Tonglen for My Mother,” explore the distinct difficulties facing families in Appalachia, especially in an era of capitalism run amok.
The overall intent of Appalachian Reckoning, which is ably achieved, is to dispel Vance’s convenient stereotypes and demonstrate not just the diversity of the region, but how his tale of neglectful families riddled with drug addiction and disease is not the only story of Appalachia. As Chelsea Jacks notes, “this is not a story about someone who ‘got out’ of Appalachia.”