If You Are Sick of “Hillbilly” Books, You Need to Read “Hill Women” by Kentuckian Cassie Chambers

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Why I read Hill Women

(and also why I almost didn’t)


I don’t know if I misunderstood this book based on my own prejudice or poor marketing, but I do remember seeing it in Barnes & Noble and thinking, ugh, not another hillbilly book.  I’m over it.

While books about people’s overcoming adversity make good reads, and their stories are compelling, I’ve actually developed and aversion to them because I’ve also come to find them divisive.

I also think it’s not healthy to read too many books about “others” where those “others” are always downtrodden or victimized in some way. I think the mind starts link what happens to these people to their “otherness”, and they stop believing that it is the grace of God that makes it not I, or they, to paraphrase the saying.

 So I read Hillbilly Elegy when it came out, but I’ve also read Bobbie Ann Mason, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Ron Rash, which also made me think about all the different people who live in rural parts of the United States, and the people I know.  Just because their lives are different doesn’t make their lives bad. 

Even in Hillbilly Elegy, I realized that a predominant theme is that the women changed partners a lot, and usually each ending brought about economic problems and definitely instability.  Yes, I realize there are reasons that these women made these choices, but I also realized that there are people who did not make these choices.  I knew there had to be people with more stability.

Additionally, there are issues with substance abuse among the people profiled in Hillbilly Elegy, and while these problems are serious, especially when they are tied to lack of opportunity, the fact is that there are many people who do not get caught in them.  There are many rural residents who are also church goers, and from personal experience I know that there is a very strong “dry” culture.  Many people, including but not limited to, church goers, don’t drink.  When I was growing up, there were people who would not eat in a restaurant that served liquor.

And of course, there are many other people who enjoy an adult beverage without letting it take over their lives.

 Anyway, at some point I read a bit more about Hill Women and realized that it tells a different story, so I got onto a Holds list one of my libraries and waited my turn.

What did Cassie Chambers see that others don’t?

If you want to find evidence to support the clichés, you can find plenty of photos online yourself. Stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason.

But if you look a little deeper, you will find more.

Below are recent photos from the two Kentuckian locales that shaped Chambers’ life.

Berea College, Kentucky

Cassie Chambers (mostly) grew up with her parents in Berea, Kentucky, which she characterizes as a progressive college town that emphasizes the development of a student population from the broadest range possible, both economically and culturally. As a part of the school’s mission, no student pays tuition. No kidding.

They emphasize diversity and service.

The presence of this college creates a certain type of atmosphere in the town, according to Chambers, that does NOT fit the “hillbilly” cliché.

Click here: Berea College

Jessica Puckett-Davis, Ahmad Shuja and Keosha Morgan, students at Berea College in Kentucky, having an outdoors study session on a nice Spring day.

Photo credit: Berea College. 22 May 2009.

Incoming freshmen students during orientation day at Berea College in Kentucky.

Photo credit: Tim Webb / Berea College

20 August 2011

Owsley County, KY

When Chambers wasn’t in Berea with her parents, she spent her time in Owsley County with her grandmother and aunt.

The house below is a larger version of the home where she visited them.

When I see a building like this, I don’t necessarily want to photograph it. I want to walk through it to see the history.

A Decaying Home

KY Hwy 2024 north of the Ricetown community of Owsley County.

Jimmy Emerson, DVM. 1 December 2012/flickr

I absolutely love the juxtaposition of the past and present in this photo.

Mistletoe is an unincorporated town in Owsley County.

Comments from the photographer: Mistletoe is waaaaaaaaay off the beaten track. The last 4.5 miles of Left Fork Buffalo Road to Mistletoe is gravel.

The post office was in the back of the old church building for 25-30 years before finally closing December 30, 1999. I was able to speak with Mrs Couch, the widow of the last Mistletoe postmaster. The church-post office sits in her front yard. She remembers going to church as a child here when it was a functioning Presbyterian Church.

Jimmy Emerson, DVM. 1 December 2012/flickr

Comments from the photographer: The Mistletoe post office was closed December 30, 1999 at the retirement of Mr AB Couch, who had served since 1970. Due to it’s Christmas themed name, the post office cancelled cards with a speical postmark designed by Mr Couch’s son. That specially designed Christmas postmark was painted onto the Couch’s mailbox after the PO was closed.

You can see the old Mistletoe post office in the background–was located in the old Presbyterian Church.

Jimmy Emerson, DVM. 1 December 2012/flickr



Why you should read Hill Women

Hill Women is not a work of straight nonfiction, in fact, it is mostly a memoir in which Cassie Chambers tells the story of her life, starting with the time she spent growing up on a her family farm. 

The story is very narrative with a minimum of “facts and figures”, especially at the beginning, so you will feel like you’re reading a novel.

From the beginning, Cassie’s life was destined to be different because instead of living full time in the country, she lived in a progressive college town with her parents.  Her parents, particularly her mother, emulated their parents by marrying young, but they also both finished their educations and went on to have professional jobs.

Giving the phrase “plain living” a new meaning. A student at Berea College in Kentucky, where Chambers’ parents attended university, hangs laundry out to air-dry at the college’s Ecovillage apartments, with her daughter in the foreground.

The old becomes new again.

Berea College, 19 April 2019.

 Meanwhile, in the country, small tobacco farming collapsed, and her relatives had to attempt to move on to other forms of income, some with more success than others. 

Tobacco Field. Island City, KY. 24 August 2008. Jimmy Emerson, DVM, flickr.com

As Cassie grows up, she profits from some unexpected opportunities, and finds herself with an Ivy League education while some of her cousins fall into the same traps that ensnare many people.  Cassie also finds herself back in Kentucky, working to help families work within a legal system that sometimes seems designed to further ensnare them, particularly women in bad marriages.

The message of this book however, focuses more often on what we should keep rather than on what we should leave behind.  I certainly felt myself identifying with some of Chambers’ earliest memories, and understand the work ethic she picked up from all of her relatives.

What I agree with wholeheartedly is Chambers’ implication that we learn from example, so when we don’t know anyone who has a fulfilling job, we don’t know what to do.  That’s true wherever people are from.

So often, we give kids books about overcoming adversity, but that does two things.  First, it opens up the divide.  We start to think that everyone from a certain background is “other”, when really, usually people have more similarities than differences.  It also keeps us from seeing how each of us can benefit from all the little bits and pieces in our lives, the bad and the good.

One of the earliest scenes in Hill Women is 5-year-old Cassie, in the early 90’s (it feels like it should be the 50’s) following her aunt through the tobacco fields and earning $1 a day for helping her.  Now some people might find that shocking, but Chambers realizes that it was her aunt’s way of teaching her values, values that became just as important to her as the modeling her mother did while working on her college degree at home.

And she also points out that having a 5 year old following you around in the fields would definitely have been more than a hindrance than a help. Adults let little children help, of course, out of a duty to train them for the future rather than for the value of the work they do at the time.

 Books like Hill Women are a good choice for sharing with with teenagers because the kids can identify better, understand the ways that others are like them, and also, I hope, feel encouraged to work with what they have.

More about Cassie Chambers

Her most up-to-date site at the moment is her campaign website for Louisville City Council at Cassie Chambers Armstrong.

Free Read

Interview with Cassie Chambers

Beyond Bootstraps: An Appalachian memoir that rejects the narrative of Hillbilly Elegy in favor of something more complicated. 

Fiction set in Kentucky and Appalachia from The Lois Level:

Ron Rash’s view of the Smokies in North Carolina from “Serena” and his short stories

Bobbie Ann Mason: An authentic voice from western Kentucky

Loved “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek”? Try these.

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