I recently traveled home to Appalachia and visited my old haunts, eventually finding myself sitting at the edge of the Ohio River. An old river barge came around the bend, meandering its way under the bridges that connect Ohio and Kentucky. I used to watch scenes like this every day. I never realized how much I took them for granted until I left. I love where I came from and the people that made me who I am today. Even with its problems, Appalachia is still a beautiful complex place full of life and wonder.
But since J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy hit the top of the bestseller lists, the national discussion about the region has been reduced to the debate around a single memoir. Last fall, I wrote about how one single book cannot define a region and gave 15 recommendations for readers looking to read more Appalachian literature.
More recently, J.D. Vance announced his run for Senate, and a slew of writers have voiced their concern for his problematic stance on Appalachia (and many other issues), including Alana Anton on 100 Days of Appalachia and Tom Nichols in The Atlantic. With Vance’s name back in the headlines, I thought now would be a great time to recommend 15 MORE books you should read instead of Hillbilly Elegy.
Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains by Cassie Chambers Armstrong
Cassie Chambers gives us a beautiful example of what it means to be invested in your community and honoring the women in your family for all the effort they pour into you to help you on your way in life. Last fall, she wrote a piece in the Atlantic called “Hillbilly Elegy Doesn’t Reflect the Appalachia I Know,” which perfectly sums up her view on the matter.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
Yes, that Deesha Philyaw. Though it may shock some readers to learn, Deesha Philyaw is from Appalachia! Her short story collection was my favorite book last year. She possesses the ability to draw readers in quickly and make us invested within the first few paragraphs. If you want to hear more about this collection, check out Philyaw’s interview on podcast Black in Appalachia.
Quarantine: Stories by Rahul Mehta
Indian American writer Rahul Mehta grew up in West Virginia. His collection of short stories, Quarantine, follows young gay men as they strive to make a place for themselves. Family pressure, societal norms, and regional identity complicate matters, giving these men the feeling of being in isolation from others like themselves.
Black Bone: 25 Years of Affrilachian Poets Edited by Bianca Lynne Spriggs and Jeremy Paden
About 30 years ago, Frank X Walker, the former Poet Laureate of Kentucky, coined “Affrilachia” to refer to Appalachians of African descent and to celebrate their unique identity. Since then, Affrilachian writers from New York state to Alabama have produced some of the best literature from the region.
Perfect Black by Crystal Wilkinson
Speaking of Affrilachia, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, Crystal Wilkinson, is one of the original members of the Affrilachian writers group. Her latest book, Perfect Black, is her first full volume of poetry. You can hear more about Perfect Black on Black in Appalachia’s interview with Crystal Wilkinson.
Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome
In this debut from Brian Broome, he shares with us what it was like growing up in a small town in Appalachian Ohio. He discusses the colorism he faced within his own community and the isolation he felt as a Black gay man in a world that required him to perform straightness. Broome’s prose possesses this brilliant quality that captures your attention and doesn’t let go until you’ve turned the last page.
Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Polluck
Polluck is from Knockemstiff, Ohio, a hop, skip, and a jump away from where my grandparents are from on the other side of the county. So when I read the stories in Knockemstiff, I can see the gray sky over the trees, the shimming blue water of the Little Scioto River, and worn sides of brick buildings.
Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America Edited by Ryan Schuessler and Kevin Whiteneir Jr.
This anthology features nonfiction from LGBTQ+ writers from the Midwest, Appalachian, the Great Plains, the Rust Belt, and parts of the Upper South. Queer people from these regions often find stories like theirs left out of the National narrative of queer life. But Sweeter Voices Still highlights writers from Middle America, giving them a chance to tell their own stories.
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
While many people will recognize Bastard Out of Carolina as a contemporary Southern classic, it’s also an Appalachian story. Set in Greenville County and nestled amongst the Appalachian foothills, this novel introduced readers around the world to this little corner of America and inspired a countless number of other writers to believe that their own stories were worth telling.
From the moment I heard Chris Hamby on the podcast Appodlachia, I knew I had to read his book. I finished it in 48 hours, finding that the whole story read like a thrilling page turner. But Soul Full of Coal Dust is the nonfiction account of Big Coal hiding the fact that their lack of accountability had caused hundreds of miners to fall ill with black lung.
Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia by Elizabeth Catte
After her incredible book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Elizabeth Catte is back with Pure America, in which she tackles the role that eugenics played in Virginia’s history. While eugenics is certainly not a light topic, Catte does a great job breaking down her research for readers. I, for one, do not “science” well and found this book incredibly accessible.
Kin: A Memoir by Shawna Kay Rodenberg
In her debut memoir, Shawna Kay Rodenberg shares the story of her childhood moving away from and then returning to her family’s home in Eastern Kentucky. Rodenberg’s memoir captures so many of the feelings Appalachian young people experience as they must choose between staying in the place they love or leaving for better opportunities.
The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
The Kentucky author Kayla Rae Whitacker voiced her concern over the film version of Hillbilly Elegy, perfectly capturing my own dread and anxieties leading up to the movie’s release. Of course, I then picked up her book The Animators, which features the friendship between two women with big dreams.
Something Rich and Strange by Ron Rash
As one of American literature’s most well-known Appalachian writers, Ron Rash stands as a pristine example of what great literature can be. But while most folks are more familiar with his novels, like Serena or Above the Waterfall, I wanted to recommend one of his short story collections.
The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry
Speaking of American classics, Wendell Berry is a must-read for anyone looking to learn more about what Appalachian literature has to offer. The man has written many wonderful novels and short story collections, but his writing on agriculture grabbed my attention and drew me in to reading more of his work.
If you’re looking for even more Appalachian literature, check out @ReadAppalachia over on Instagram.