I read Hillbilly Elegy soon after it was released. I don’t really remember much about it and didn’t consider it controversial. I just finished reading What We Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte and discovered there are many people in the area who are not fans of Vance and his book’s portrayal of the area. It made me think about the time I spent in Appalachia.
I grew up in Kentucky, but not in the western part of the state. I didn’t really spend much time in the eastern part of the state until one summer of my college years. I signed up to work as a summer missionary with the Baptist church. Many people were sent to exciting locations. I was sent to Inez, KY. It made sense. I had no discernible talent and Inez just needed someone to knock on doors and talk to people about a new church being built. So, no talent Tater was chosen and off I went to eastern Kentucky.
During my time in Inez, I met a lot of people both by knocking on doors and being involved with the local church. It was the one time I’ve actually sung on stage without a choir when I was the music leader for a youth revival. That has nothing to do with anything, but it was a big moment in my life. I have no profound things to say about the people I met. There were some people who would fit in a book about extreme poverty. There was a guy living in a bus in the woods. There was a self-professed Buddhist which was interesting to find in small-town Appalachia back then. There were people who believed the King James Version of the Bible was the one written during Bible times and wouldn’t read other versions. But also
There were people who opened their homes to a stranger.
There were people who cooked food for a weird college kid.
There were teens and kids who were happy to have a weird college kid take interest in their lives.
There were teenage girls who lived down the street who pretended to have interest in the local church to have an excuse to talk to the college guy living in the neighborhood over the summer.
There were families with the same worries and concerns as the families I’ve met in suburban Maryland.
There were many good people willing to help a college kid away from home for the summer.
There were people who taught me that I had to learn to say “down at the mouth of the holler” for people to understand where the new church would be.
In short, in Appalachia the people were similar to the people I knew from home. Small town people with a mix of the “middle class” teachers and other professionals, “working class” people who could survive and support their family, and those struggling to make it day to day. Small town people who went out of their way to make a college kid feel at home for a summer.