Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I posted this book review some time ago, when the book was newly published, and before many of you had read it. Now, just about everyone who is very interested in the subject has read it. We know that Ron Howard is going to turn it into a movie.  Here is the review again:

Update: This book is going to be made into a movie, directed by Ron Howard.

Before I start this book review, I feel the need to print a bit of a disclaimer. This book is about the area of the country in which I grew up. I grew up on the fringes of Appalachia, but I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who lived in Magoffin Country, KY, just two counties over from Jackson, KY, where the author spent at least part of his childhood. I don’t think I’m biased as I’ve spent most of my life in other places than Appalachia. But, I understand the culture and I am brutally honest about the culture. I have delayed writing this book review because the subject matter of the novel is so close to my heart as I’m sure it is close to the heart of J.D. Vance. With that said, here goes…..

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Update: This book is going to be made into a movie, directed by Ron Howard.

Before I start this book review, I feel the need to print a bit of a disclaimer. This book is about the area of the country in which I grew up. I grew up on the fringes of Appalachia, but I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who lived in Magoffin Country, KY, just two counties over from Jackson, KY, where the author spent at least part of his childhood. I don’t think I’m biased as I’ve spent most of my life in other places than Appalachia. But, I understand the culture and I am brutally honest about the culture. I have delayed writing this book review because the subject matter of the novel is so close to my heart as I’m sure it is close to the heart of J.D. Vance. With that said, here goes…..

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance is about a family who originated in Breathitt County, KY, squarely in the middle of the Appalachian portion of Kentucky (southeastern Kentucky). Specifically, Mr. Vance grew up in Jackson, KY, the largest town in that county. Breathitt County is poor, even desperately poor, white, and most of the people are, in their way, both hopeless and proud. This book is Mr. Vance’s memoir.

Hillbilly Elegy is a graphic, yet accurate, portrayal of life in Appalachia, or perhaps I should say Eastern Kentucky, during the time he grew up. I’m not speaking as a book reviewer. I’m speaking as one who was there at the same time as well as before and since. I know that the way Mr. Vance portrayed Eastern Kentucky is, for the most part, true. The people are good people. They are proud and they would be hard-working, if there were anywhere to work. Since work is so scarce, there have been periods of movement out of the area, and Mr. Vance’s family moved during one of those periods. The typical places to move have been to Ohio and Michigan. Mr. Vance’s family moved to Middletown, Ohio seeking a better life and work. Ultimately, they were seeking upward mobility. Upward mobility existed in Eastern Kentucky during my grandparent’s time. It doesn’t anymore.

Yes, Mr. Vance’s family carried their culture with them when they moved to Ohio. What else were they to do? They knew nothing else. They were hot-tempered and quick to take offense. Perhaps that was because the culture in Eastern Kentucky developed in geographic isolation from the rest of the world. The family had addiction problems. When people can’t find work, that tends to happen. Those things went with them to Ohio as they are not solvable over night. They were “different” than their neighbors in Ohio. Of course they were. They came from a different place with different social norms and different values. It was hard to fit in, especially with people who called you a “hillbilly” and made fun of your accent. Vance’s family all struggled with their middle-class life in Ohio. They struggled to escape the demons of their pasts. They never did and my guess is neither did J.D. Vance. None of us ever do, do we?

Vance’s family life seems chaotic to people who have never lived in the culture of Appalachia but not so chaotic to those of us who have. He did have the stabilizing influence of his grandparents on his mother’s side and that, perhaps, saved him. He went on to become a first-generation college student, a Marine, and he graduated from the Yale Law school. He is not the only young person to have escaped a disadvantaged background. He clearly had determination and intelligence as is evidenced in Hillbilly Elegy.

The culture described in this book is not limited to Appalachia. Any poor, white, disadvantaged culture can fall prey to the cultural problems that Vance’s family experienced. I admire J.D. Vance for writing a book that told the truth about a family and an area which he clearly loves.

Hillbilly Elegy is a bestseller. It is an excellent social psychology look at a culture in crisis. It should be required reading for high school and/or college students. #amwriting #amblogging #writing #HillbillyElegy #Appalachia

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Appalachia: Recipe for Fall Apple Cake


Hi everyone! This is a very old Appalachian recipe, handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother and finally to my precious Aunt Red, the lady I wrote about in the blog post,  The Most Elegant Lady. It is so old that the writing is extremely faded on the paper I have. I have to get it typed up before it completely fades away! Since it is fall apple season, I thought it was time to share this with all of you!

Fall Apple Cake

*This cake was originally supposed to be made with Winesap apples. Winesap apples are very hard to find now. Granny Smith apples are the best substitute.

2 cups sugar

2 cups vegetable oil – Wesson oil or other oil

Mix sugar into vegetable oil

3 cups all purpose flour

1/2 tsps cloves

1/2 tsps cinnamon

1 tsps salt

1 tsps baking soda

3 cups finely chopped apples (Winesap or Granny Smith)

Optional: 1 cup finely chopped nuts or 1 cup raisins

Mix everything together

Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour

Let cool on a baking rack before cutting it



Storytelling Festivals


Storytelling is one of the ancient arts of communication, existing all the way back to prehistoric times. In Appalachia, storytelling has been perfected. This weekend, Cave run Storytelling Festival will be held on the banks of Cave run Lake, outside of Morehead, KY in northeastern Kentucky, a town on the northern fringes of the Appalachian region of Kentucky.

The Cave Run Storytelling Festival is held in large tents at the Twin Knobs Recreation area at Cave Run Lake, surrounded by the beautiful Daniel Boone National Forest. It is open to the public on September 23 and 24. The featured storyteller this year is Bil Lepp, a nationally renowned teller. Other famous storytellers will join Lepp including Geraldine Buckley and Kevin Kling among others.

The Cave Run Storytelling Festival is an offshoot of the National Storytelling Festival held every year in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Carolyn Franzini, a professor at Morehead State University, visited that festival with her daughter and brought the idea back to the Morehead community. Finally, the festival was organized on the banks of Cave Run Lake and the rest is history. It is attended by thousands of people each year.

Visit Cave Run Story Festival for ticket and more information. #storytelling #Appalachia


Melungeons of Appalachia


Friday Fare to Appalachia

Since at least the 1800’s, there has been a mixed blood strain of people living in pockets of Appalachia called Melungeons. The groups of Melungeons are/were located near Carmel, OH and Magoffin County, KY. Down through the years, there have been other groups in Tennessee and other states in Appalachia. They were thought to be white (some mix of European immigrant stock), African, and Native American. The actual racial descent of these people is actually a mystery and now, in the modern day, there is a Melungeon DNA project to try to determine just where this group of people came from.

The Melungeons seemed to be located primarily in Hancock County, Tennessee with another pocket in Magoffin and Floyd Counties, Ky. The group would occasionally migrate to Carmel, Ohio, possibly to find work in the swampy onion fields in the area. In Magoffin County, Ky, there was very little work for them. They lived in an area where farming was difficult due to the mountains and very narrow valleys.

The Melungeons faced extreme discrimination wherever they went. There were and are very few people of mixed race descent in most of the Appalachian region. It is a region primarily composed of white people of northern European descent. People with  a darker skin are very much noticed. The Melungeons also had particularly surnames that identified them. Some of those names were Gibson or Gipson, Nichols, and Colllins, among others. One side of my family came from Magoffin County, Ky. I can remember my grandmother cautioning us “not to be like the Gipsons.” We did not know who or what “the Gipsons” were. We only knew that they were a family whose behavior was considered somehow “dirty” and we were not supposed to emulate it. This is the type of discrimination these people faced.

In order to fit in with the general population, the Melungeons self-identified as white mixed with Native American. Some self-identified as white mixed with Portuguese or Turkish. In reality, their background is still a mystery which the Melungeon DNA Project is trying to work out. Current results from the Melungeon DNA Project show results that their background is white descent mixed with African descent with very little, if any, Native American descent. Specifically, the females were primarily of white, Northern EUropean descent and males were mixed African and white descent.

The current state of many of the Melungeons is that they have intermarried and moved out of their home areas and intermingled with the majority groups in society. Many people in and out of Appalachia are curious about the Melungeons and whether or not they could have Melungeon blood and are using services like to try to locate any possible Melungeon ancestors. #Melungeon #amwriting #amblogging #Appalachia #writing





Appalachia: Hillbillies, Rednecks?


So are the terms hillbillies and rednecks, when used to refer to the people of Appalachia, considered derogatory? The short answer is yes, usually they are. If we explore where those terms originally came from, we’ll see that they were not necessarily meant to be derogatory terms but the American people took them and ran with them. Remember The Beverly Hillbillies TV show? The Dukes of Hazzard?  Deliverance, the movie? These words were certainly derogatory in connection with these television shows and, in the case of the first show, gave the viewers something to laugh at. In the case of the movie, Deliverance, these words were more ones for the viewers to be horrified and frightened by.

It is unclear where the word “hillbilly” originated, but it may have been derived from similar words in the Scots-Irish culture. The Scots-Irish people were among the first settlers of Appalachia and may have brought this word with them. The word “hillfolk” was used by the Scots to describe those who preferred living in the mountains and isolation from society. The word “billie” was used to refer to a companion. After the Civil War, Appalachia became perceived as backward as the US moved westward and Appalachia was left isolated geographically and inbred because of that. During the Great Depression, and after, there was outward migration from Appalachia to the north in search of work. The poor whites who emerged from the mountains became figures in stories and the characterization of “hillbillies” emerged even stronger.

When “hillbillies” self-identify, they simply say they are people living in the mountainous regions. When “rednecks” self-identify, they refer to a time when union coal miners fought against mine operators who were trying to oppress them and wore red bandanas around their necks. Rednecks often tie themselves to an entire political and cultural movement in the US. Both terms tend to take on derogatory meanings when used by outsiders. This writer prefers the term “Appalachians” to reflect the proud heritage of the people of the region. #amwriting #writing #blogging #Appalachia



Recipes for my Appalachian Readers: A Dilemma

I want to post a good recipe for all my Appalachian readers today. But, I have a dilemma and I guess I’m going to have to write a heartfelt blog post and make a confession before I can do anything. It’s hard for me to post the recipes handed down from my family from Appalachia right now..and probably in the future. Why? Twenty years ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes. I know many of you feel my pain as you are also diabetic. The prevalence of this disease is high, particularly in Appalachia. Don’t let anyone tell you it is just a function of your weight. I weighed 110 pounds. It is also a function of heredity. The Appalachia side of my family was riddled with it.

I am an insulin-dependent diabetic and have fought this disease one way or another for 20 years but until recently, I never fought it the right way. After my diagnosis and after beginning to take insulin, I gradually started to gain weight. I never gained an excessive amount of weight but it was excessive to me and it certainly did not help diabetes. The more weight I gained, the higher my blood sugar went and the higher my insulin requirements climbed. The higher my insulin requirements climbed, the hungrier I got.

In February of this year, I decided the madness had to stop. I had studied food and nutrition for diabetics. I essentially designed my own diet because the diets given to me by dietitians associated with my diabetes doctor were not working. On March 1, I started the diet I designed. I’m not going to discuss the details of the diet because each person is different and it might not work for you.

The diet did, however, work for me. I’ve lost almost 30 pounds and that is almost as much as I needed to lose. I no longer have to take any daytime insulin and my nighttime insulin has been cut by more than half. I don’t even crave the foods I used to eat.

Why am I telling you all this? Because most of the recipes from the old folks that I would post for you are terribly unhealthy. Delicious but not so healthy. I would like to help the people of Appalachia, not hurt them. So, I want to make a deal with you. Around the holidays, I will post the old recipes. Otherwise, I’m going to post a “lightened up” version of some of the old recipes that you may like just as well. If you are diabetic yourself, they are a lot more diabetes friendly. Deal?

My first “lightened up” recipe will be for cole slaw. #amwriting #blogging #diabetes #Appalachia


Recipe for Cole Slaw


Here is a lightened up version of a old-fashioned recipe for cole slaw. It’s very easy and can be used just for supper at night or for big family dinners:


2 cups shredded green cabbage (easy way is to shred in food processor)

1/2 cup both thinly sliced red bell pepper and red onion

2 tbsp both seasoned rice vinegar and extra virgin olive oil

1/4 tsps salt

1/8 tsps freshly ground black pepper

Toss all ingredients together, cover, and refrigerator for at least an hour. You can double or triple this recipe for bigger gatherings. #amwriting #blogging #diabetes #healthyeating


A Thought on Extended Families

I know a woman who has a large extended family. Let’s call her Pat. Pat’s immediate family is gone. She was an only child who had no children. Her husband is still living. Pat has a large, but dwindling, extended family on her father’s side that she grew up with. They were all always close. Until one of Pat’s aunts passed away. Then, the family basically fell apart. The aunt was the glue that held them together.

The relationships within this extended family have gotten complicated. It makes Pat sad. She loved her extended family, particularly her cousins. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I feel sorry for Pat. She assumed, for her entire life, that she could always depend on her extended family. Now she knows there are a few that she can depend on, but most of them don’t care about her anymore.

There were seven aunts and uncles in this family. All had one or more children. Pat’s cousins. The brothers and sisters were all close even though there were occasional squabbles. They saw each other frequently. That meant the children, Pat’s cousins, saw each other and were also close. Right or wrong, since Pat was an only child, she saw those cousins as her siblings. The older cousins were mentors. The younger cousins were her loves. She felt like they were her’s.

Everyone, of course, grew up and went on to live their lives. Of course, everything changed. Pat didn’t understand why their relationships with each other had to change. Just like in any family, there were quarrels. Everyone seemed to hold grudges instead of working it out. Emotional distances grew between the cousins. But not between all the cousins. Pat remained close to a cherished few of her cousins. Those cousins are the ones who live far away.

There is one aunt who is left in Pat’s family and she is treasured. Besides the one aunt,  there are 17 cousins, including several first cousins, once removed. Pat loves them all. There are two cousins that Pat has no contact with for reasons she doesn’t know. That leaves 15 cousins. Out of those 15, Pat thinks there are about five she could depend on in a crisis. Earlier in her life, she felt she could depend on just about all of them. Worse yet, Pat misses her cousins.

Take my poll. How do you feel about your extended family? The poll is anonymous. #amwriting #writing #blogging #family