Of course Hillbilly Elegy is actually a memoir, not a novel. And J.D. Vance is actually a Republican, not an honest writer. That’s why we’re talking in the subjunctive. But I digress…
Lady Chevy, by John Woods, is a bleak but effective novel. As in the Vance memoir, its protagonist grows up in the Appalachian portion of Ohio and is unusual because of being destined for college. The descriptions of the region are consistent between the two books but differ in their surface topics: mostly drugs in the Vance memoir, mostly fracking in the Woods novel. In both cases, though, the real theme is hopelessness and what do do about it. Both books take the major character from an apparently hopeless childhood in rural Appalachian Ohio to attendance at a prestigious university.
If you read only one, which book should you read? You can certainly get a picture of life in Appalachia by reading Hillbilly Elegy—a highly biased picture, but a picture nevertheless. The trouble is that that book really is not worth reading, for reasons I cited in my review from five years ago. So just read my review instead; it will tell you all you need to know, with the added bonus of getting my unbiased (IMHO) take on the man who will probably be the next U.S. senator from Ohio.
You can also get a picture of life in Appalachia by reading Lady Chevy. As with any work of fiction in which setting plays a strong role, you’re never quite sure how accurate the portrayal is. But since the author grew up in the region he portrays, and since he seems reliable, I’m inclined to trust the picture. I have absolutely no idea what his politics might be; Woods (unlike Vance) does not wear his politics on his sleeve. But you can get some idea from a remark by the protagonist, the first-person narrator who dreams of becoming a veterinarian and volunteers at the local veterinary clinic even while still in high school:
To this day we help those who look like us, act like us, value what we value. My family says this is the strength of small-town America, an intuitive truth of all worthwhile nations.
There’s a lot to learn from those two short sentences.
You can also learn a lot from a description of the class structure of the town as revealed in the local high school. The narrator writes about her civics teacher, Mr. Packard:
Packard wrangled them all in to speak with high-school kids about honorable professions, the responsibilities that kept a town running…. I was bitter. People like my parents never got asked to come speak. My dad helped put the roofs on most of their homes…. But these people in their suits and ties and slacks possessed something higher, almost unattainable, a superior value determined by their positions in life, ones they had earned through college, through gates denied to people like me.
I can tell you that the characters and the plot of this dark novel are complex and feel real. The difficulty with Lady Chevy is that I can’t tell you the truth about the protagonist and the most major of the “minor” characters, as that would involve spoilers. So you should read it yourself, but not during a week when you need to be cheered up.