"Hillbilly Elegy" A Counterpoint

Nov 11, 2016

J.D. Vance’s best selling book, "Hillbilly Elegy,” offers insight into the lives of people from Appalachia, many of whom were part of Donald Trump’s political base.  It’s a personal memoir, but it has also become a handbook of Hillbilly culture. Another Writer, Roanoke native, Mark Lynn Ferguson, also considers himself a hillbilly. But he has a different take on what that means to him.

Mark Lynn Ferguson has a different take a 'Hillbilly Elegy'

Writer Mark Lynn Ferguson says, “J.D. Vance and I both grew up in very low income families. I was raised in a neighborhood in Roanoke that’s probably better known for its massage parlors and its rough bars than for having great schools. And we were on ‘Section 8.’  We were on food stamps.  And while the neighborhood was rough it was actually a step up for us in that by all rights we probably should have been living in public housing, which in the 1980’s in Roanoke was pretty rough.

Like JD Vance, Mark Lynn Ferguson also managed to get out of poverty.

“I didn’t do it on my own. I had an amazing amount of assistance, starting with a family that, even though they didn’t have a formal education themselves, they valued it. I went to a magnet school in high school that helped build my confidence. I had teachers that would take time during their off hours to drive me to speaking competitions.”

Ferguson got financial aid to go to College and a boss of his co-signed the loan so he could to Harvard. Vance went to Yale. 

He acknowledges,“ JD, in Hillbilly Elegy he tells an amazing personal story and he writes beautifully. He actually shows a great deal of compassion towards people who have addictions or mental illnesses. I think when things start to go off the rails is when he generalizes. He claims not to represent not just deeply damaged people but all hillbillies.  He leaves the reader with this impression that most people in Appalachia live in some perpetual state of violence or apathy or anger or entitlement.”

Vance grew up in an Ohio steel belt town, that he writes has been  ‘hemorrhaging jobs and hope. But Appalachia is a big region comprising parts of 13 different eastern states.

He says, what he sees is, “that most people don’t live that way and the region itself is actually on an economic upswing.  If you look at data from 1960 right before the war on poverty and you compare it to 2010, 50 years later, the number of high poverty counties in the Appalachian south dropped some 60 % and I think that’s a pretty remarkable transformation in a region that still is portrayed as destitute.”

Ferguson writes about this region in his blog, “The Revivalist” as a way of keeping connected to his roots.  He now lives in Alexandria Virginia where he does marketing and promotion for non-profits.

He thinks, “There’s a lot of reason to have hope in Appalachia and that doesn’t really convey in Hillbilly Elegy.

Where Vance gets it right, says Ferguson, is when he writes about the hillbilly connection to President Elect, Donald Trump.

“Trump is appealing because he’s colloquial. He’s a smart Alec.  He talks a lot like people who are poor or working class talk. He’s sticking it to elites, who even when they were doing things that helped working class people, they weren’t connecting to those people and those people have felt ignored for a long, long time."

Like Vance, Mark Lynn Ferguson traces his roots to Scots Irish Culture, his date back to the 1820s. In his blog he focuses on the charms of one of the few, still intact old cultures in this country and how it’s evolved.

From the annual Appalachian Food Summit that drawing national attention, or the Crooked Road Music Trail that brings the region 13 million dollars a year, and former coal miners, turned computer coders, in a part of Tennessee they call “Silicon Holler.”

Ferguson says, “You know, there are advantages to having been isolated from the rest of the world for a few hundred years. I think we actually do have a distinct identity, a sense of heritage, a sense of culture that you see in everything we do.

You hear it in our accents, you see it in the food we eat, you certainly hear it in our music.  Bluegrass and Old Time music are products of the Appalachian south that have been exported around the world. They may be our biggest ambassadors.

You know, there are bluegrass bands in Japan now, which is remarkable that we’ve had this kind of cultural influence on the world and for all the stereotypes, for all the characterization of hillbillies as poor or backwoods, or like J.D. Vance portrays them as violent and apathetic, I think there’s also a lot of magic that comes out of our region and people see that too.”