Jim King offers his thoughts on the reception of Hillbilly Elegy.

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Author J.D. Vance emphasizes that the experiences rendered in Hillbilly Elegy are his own. He sets out to tell his own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town, not intending to represent others’ lives or to serve as the mouthpiece for a region or group of people.

Despite this disclaimer, his memoir has set off a national debate around what it means to grow up working class and white in rural America. There are extreme reactions to the book: either it resonates with folks, and they think, “Wow—that’s interesting; let’s invite Vance to be a keynote speaker.” Or the book deeply offends readers who insist he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Given these polarizing reactions, it’s clear this memoir strikes a nerve. J.D. Vance has gotten a few points right and, most importantly, the controversy surrounding Hillbilly Elegy opens a door for us folks from rural America to define our region and chart the course for positive change.

First, the reactions to Hillbilly Elegy make it clear that rural America is a distinct subculture. J.D. Vance accurately identifies some of our characteristics: we are smart, hardworking, and loyal. We don’t always understand what we do to ourselves that is destructive. However, rural America is far more complicated than one person’s story can reveal.

Donald Trump tapped into this subculture during his presidential campaign. He said what people wanted to hear and hit on what people believe about themselves. In his inaugural address, Trump stated “The forgotten men and women of our country will no longer be forgotten.”

Now is a crucial moment for rural areas; the political climate has thrust us into the spotlight, and no one is ignoring us now. The time is ripe for those of us living and working toward positive change in the region to craft a message of who we really are. We must define ourselves and not let the political parties find a new label that is simple or convenient.

Let’s work together in this pivotal moment to craft a message for the nation. To that end, we invite you to tell your own story and send it to us. Tell us about the good you see happening day-to-day in your community. Fahe looks forward to seeing your stories and boosting your voices via our social media outlets.

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