New book club focused on Appalachian culture for first meeting

Cicada Books & Coffee had its first book club event Tuesday, November 27. Members of the community were welcome to attend in order to discuss two works of nonfiction: Elizabeth Catte’s novel “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” and J.D. Vance’s novel “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Cicada Books provided an open forum for community members to discuss these books and ideas associated with them, as well as a free cup of hot coffee to all who attended.

The conversation centered around Appalachian culture and issues of prejudice through the lens of these two books.

“As Appalachians, we are always looking at outsiders’ images of us,” said Dawn Norman, the owner of Cicada Books and organizer of the event. “It was a good chance to critically examine those images with interested people in the community.”

The two books have garnered a lot of media attention, especially in Appalachia. J.D. Vance’s book, which was published in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, was applauded by mainstream media for its portrayal of “Trump country” and how impoverished, working class America operates. Scholars viewed “Hillbilly Elegy” as a look inside to the forgotten America, a way to understand Appalachian culture. Vance’s work was also scrutinized, and he was accused of ignoring the narratives of many Appalachians as a diverse people and suggesting Appalachia can only be saved by the people who reside within it.

“I disagree with Vance because I think he fails to represent Appalachia in an accurate way,” said Sara Browning, who attended the book club. “I think this is the perfect place to discuss what exactly he gets wrong, and I get to discuss it with like-minded people. Or people who don’t agree. Either way, these conversations are important to have. They give us visibility.”

Elizabeth Catte’s “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” the other book chosen for the book club, is a direct response to Vance. She critiques his interpretation of the culture and uses historical data to paint a picture of Appalachia that is different than the one in Vance’s book. The two books are often discussed in tandem with each other, as they both represent views of Appalachia that are common within media and within people who reside in the area.

Those attending the book club event received a list of prompts that were relevant to the two books, and it led to a discussion of what it means to be successful and living within a state as unique as West Virginia.

“Appalachia is a place with a very rich history” said attendee Alex Cole. “People like to twist that history a lot to fit political narratives, but it’s up to people like us to have these discussions and ultimately define what defines us.”

Though the members of this one-night book club had differing opinions on these two books, attendees were able to come together over coffee and conversation to talk about a common thread that has the ability to bring West Virginians together— home and the connection to it.

Hannah Graham can be contacted at graham155@marshall.edu.

 

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