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From the hollers of Appalachia to the halls of Yale and Harvard Law, the course of Cassie Chambers’ life is a classic American story in the Horatio Alger mode. But her new memoir Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains rejects the American myth that pluck and gumption can pull you out of poverty. Instead, Hill Women is a gritty, warm love letter to Appalachian communities and the resourceful women who lead them: aunts who cut off their skin cancer with a pocketknife, mothers in pain who refuse to go on disability in defiance of stereotypes of “lazy hillbillies.” Hill Women feels especially urgent now, in our post-2016, post-Hillbilly Elegy America. In a sense, Chambers is responding to the “bootstraps” narrative of J.D. Vance’s controversial memoir, which has been criticized for blaming Appalachians for their own circumstances. Hill Women shows an Appalachia that Hillbilly Elegy obscured.
I spoke with Chambers, who is now a family lawyer working with low-income women in Kentucky and the vice chairwoman of the state’s Democratic Party. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the differences between her book and Hillbilly Elegy, myths about Appalachia, and the relationship between personal narrative and political change.
Chloe Hadavas: The parallels between your book and J.D. Vance’s 2016 bestseller Hillbilly Elegy are unmistakable. How is Hill Women in conversation with Vance’s book?
Cassie Chambers: I really see this book as the anti-bootstraps narrative. The plot points in my story are very similar to that of J.D. Vance’s. I was born into poverty. I had these opportunities to go to elite educational institutions, and that looks like the same arc as his story. But for me it’s not that I did anything to make that happen. It’s about telling how it took really three generations of women—each one trying to do a little bit more for the next generation—for that change to happen. So it’s about the fact that my community gave me boots to put on so that I could even try to hoist myself up. And I think the lack of that kind of discussion is what a lot of people rightfully took issue with about J.D. Vance’s book.
Do you then see your book as a kind of corrective to the picture that Vance painted?
I wanted to write something that people from the region felt proud of. I really do think that J.D. Vance’s book painted this image of what poverty in Appalachia looks like. For a lot of people who don’t have experience with Appalachia, that became all they know about those communities. Vance said Appalachia has problems of morality and problems of people, instead of problems of systems. I really think his book gave people an excuse to write off Appalachia.
Along with your personal descriptions of life in Appalachia, you interweave the history of the coal and tobacco industries as well as the opioid crisis. You pay particular attention to the corporate interests, policies, and lack of government protection that have negatively affected the lives of Appalachians. Why did you choose to highlight this?
Appalachia is a part of the country that has really helped the nation as a whole. We built this country on the things that coal and coal miners did. Yet because we set up these systems that were very extractive, a lot of the resources and the wealth have been removed from those communities, and now we’re blaming those communities for the fact that that happened instead of trying to figure out ways to actually help them. The entire country should be part of the conversation about what we do to fix the systemic poverty that exists there.
Was it difficult to try to use your individual experience to discuss these broader systemic issues?
Yeah, I’m very aware that my perspective is limited to just my perspective, and I’m only talking about a handful of people. I do think there are lessons that can be drawn from that, because even in response to the book, so many people have come forward and said, “That’s the story of my family too. That’s the story of my granny. That’s the story of my mom. That’s the story of me.” So I don’t think that my story is unique or isolated.
I’m aware that J.D. Vance also told his personal story. In many ways it’s a tragic story, and I understand why he felt the need to tell it. But the way that he used his personal story to paint an entire region and an entire people is really problematic, because I don’t think it was representative of the culture or the people.
Appalachia is often characterized as a patriarchal society—I wonder even if people tend to see the figure of the “hillbilly” as traditionally male. How do you think the perspective of writing as a woman and explicitly focusing on women sheds a different light on the region?
I think you’re right that people think of Appalachia as a bunch of white men wearing Make America Great Again hats. I wanted to talk about the fact that there are women in Appalachia who exercise agency. Sometimes historically that’s been done in private ways, and ever increasingly it’s done in public ways. And there are people of color, artists, Democrats, and LGBTQ people—and not everyone is outraged by the fact that there are LGBTQ people! Certainly Appalachia is majority white, and it’s not as diverse as it should be. I just wanted to show that it’s more complicated and diverse than people think.
In the book, you talk about “wanting something better” for yourself and others, which seems to continue throughout your life, even when you move back to Kentucky—for instance, you recently encouraged a young Appalachian boy when he expressed interest in Harvard. How do you reconcile that sense of wanting to leave Appalachia with respecting and admiring the culture you were raised in?
I think you’ve hit on the main tension of the book. The answer has to be something along the lines of: People should be able to have opportunities to leave and explore the world if they want. Everyone should want to be curious about things bigger than themselves, and bigger than their holler in the hills. But I also think that people can have an understanding of the wider world—can maybe even leave for new opportunities—and then make a legitimate choice to stay there. I don’t think that everyone that chooses to stay in the mountains is making a bad choice. We just have to make it so that everyone who wants to leave to pursue other opportunities can leave, while also providing support for communities so that people who want to stay can stay.
There are a lot of smart kids who leave the mountains, and I think a lot of those kids would want to stay if we could offer opportunities for them. There is value in mountain communities as they exist. For some people, that sense of closeness, of community and connection to the land—that’s a really important thing.
Something that you pointed out about that type of community in the book is that it is very politically active.
A lot of people, particularly after the election of Donald Trump, think that people in Appalachian communities are politically ignorant and somehow got swindled into voting for Trump. And the exact opposite is true in my experience. They are some of the most politically engaged communities you will ever encounter. Folks pay attention to elections from the top of the ticket all the way down to the local magistrate or the local jailer race. Turnout numbers and primary voting are usually much lower in cities than in places like Owsley County. People see the way government affects their communities in a much stronger way in some of these places, because government is one of the few forces that you can use to create opportunities. That’s also where I differ from J.D. Vance. I do think government plays a role in helping to raise these communities up.
But I think this idea that people in Appalachia don’t make sophisticated political decisions—it’s all just part of that myth that Appalachians don’t know what’s good for them and don’t vote in their own interests. That’s a really condescending narrative.
By Cassie Chambers. Ballantine Books.
How do you feel about the way Appalachia has been represented in the national news, especially in the so-called Cletus safaris that proliferated after the election, where media outlets parachuted surprised coastal elites to interview people in “Trump country”?
I feel like that’s very closely related to the idea of poverty porn. I’ve heard stories of reporters coming into schools, asking to take pictures of some kids, and literally taking them outside and having them roll around in the dirt so they look more like poor kids, or our idea of what poor kids are supposed to look like. I really believe that if you want to know what’s going on in a community, you have to actually listen to the people living in that community. All too often people come in with this set idea of what the story is supposed to be, and then they look for ways to confirm it.