What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Tennessee native Elizabeth Catte gets to the point: popular discourse is wrong about the "who" and the "where" of Appalachia. The United States' current fixation with the region as "the other America" and "the heart of Trump country" distorts the facts and, in her brief book, Catte maintains that the diversity and travails of the people of this region defy the stereotype.

What you are getting wrong about Appalachia, Catte claims, includes the naïve belief that it's primarily West Virginia. Appalachia was officially defined during 1965's federal War on Poverty and includes about 700,000 square miles in 13 states--and was branded as impoverished. While mainstream culture portrays Appalachians as Scots-Irish coal miners, the region's forgotten workers include home healthcare and retail employees, mostly women, and significant Hispanic and African American populations. Economic exploitation (e.g., environmental destruction) and corporate welfare (e.g., tax breaks to big businesses) are well-documented.

Catte's challenges to J.D. Vance and his memoir Hillbilly Elegy start on page one and recur frequently. She characterizes his book, now widely embraced and assigned in classrooms, as "our political moment's favorite text," and Vance as "chief analyzer of the white working class." Her doctorate in public history supports her documentation countering Elegy and other popular media images. Her targets run from "local color" writers and photographers who perpetuated 1880s-era cultural stereotypes through multiple media outlets' broad characterizations of "Trump Country." Highlighting decades of suppressed workers' rights movements, as well as prison facilities that still exploit low-cost labor, Catte expands the perspective on Appalachia. Readers will indeed get more right about this slice of the country after reading her book. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco

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