The Ethics of a Dystopian Appalachia in The Hunger Games Books
To what extent can we regard The Hunger Games as the most popular Appalachian novel? Can a YA dystopian book even be considered Appalachian fiction?
Spoiler Alert for The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay books + films as well as The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Author Suzanne Collins solidifies The Hunger Games series as distinctly Appalachian with her most recent release, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy. Much like Katniss Everdeen (the first three books’ heroine), Lucy Gray, the prequel’s protagonist, comes from District 12. Collins reveals in the series’ first book that District 12 was once “a place called Appalachia.” Lucy Gray becomes Coriolanus Snow’s object of desire as he prevails against steep and violent adversity in the Capitol while acting as her mentor for the 10th Games. She becomes the text’s moral center and a bastion of anti-totalitarianism as she fights for her own survival as District 12’s female tribute.
Lucy Gray is introduced to readers as a rowdy, strange-talking musician. She claims her family has no allegiance to any district, though they have made a home in 12. However, like Katniss, she is definitively coded as Appalachian. The most apparent marker of her regional difference is her accent (Suzanne Collins once read Katniss’ voice with an Appalachian accent), though as the story unfolds readers learn of her connection to her home landscape as well as her career as a folk musician.
Readers know Coriolanus will become President Snow, the dictator of the totalitarian state Katniss and the rebels will come to subvert. Snow is a compelling and empathetic anti-hero who wishes to save his family’s honor by receiving a prestigious scholarship to the Capitol’s best university. His family would not be able to afford his schooling otherwise, having lost most of their fortune in the first war against the rebels — the war which begot the punishment of the Hunger Games to Panem’s district citizens. The stakes are high, and become even higher when he is assigned the District 12 female tribute to mentor throughout The Games. District 12 is described as the poorest, most under-resourced region of Panem, with coal being its only export of value to the Capitol. Tributes from District 12 tend to be smaller than the others due to malnutrition, placing the odds evermore against them. Snow knows his chances of winning are low, though he knows he must at the very least do well in this trial to secure his scholarship.
It is ultimately Lucy Gray’s performance of rural Appalachian culture which saves her as well as Snow. She gains support from the citizens of The Capitol by performing folk songs, and by way of this support she is provided food and water once in the arena. The final third of the book takes place solely in District 12, informing readers of the violence and betrayal, particularly in the realm of rebellion against the Capitol’s totalitarianism, which preceded Katniss. Here, we learn Lucy Gray was the author of the song “The Hanging Tree” — and its meter and lyricism bears a resemblance to the protest songs and folk ballads of the coal fields of West Virginia and Kentucky in the early 20th century.
She also performs “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Oh My Darling, Clementine” which are traditional folk songs often heard in Appalachian old-time and bluegrass music with her family, called the Covey, in the Hob — the center of District 12’s black market as well as the center of community. The family’s band itself includes a nearly traditional bluegrass setup: a mandolin, fiddle, bass, and lead singer with a guitar. In place of the banjo, and perhaps any complications that could arise from it being interpreted as a racist symbol, Lucy Gray’s younger sister, plays “a drum that [hangs] from a strap around her neck.”
The bluegrass genre Collins drew inspiration from for the Covey’s band developed in Appalachia in the early 1940s and continues to be preserved to this day. As someone who grew up listening to old time and bluegrass, it comes as no surprise these tunes would prevail into this possible near future, particularly in the face of authoritarianism. Jim Poe writes for the Times West Virginian on the presence and significance of Appalachian culture in the first Hunger Games novels as well. He explores what it means for young readers in Appalachia to have a young character like Katniss to identify with. I picked up the first Hunger Games novel in my school’s library in sixth grade and read it within a week of hour-long bus rides to and from the cove of hills where I lived into the valley where my school was located.
As a young woman raised in rural Appalachia, I identified with Katniss’ sternness, ruggedness, and silence. These books were one of few contemporary depictions of rural Appalachian womanhood out there. Every woman of every generation in my family read the trilogy — my mother, aunt, and grandmother each impatiently awaited each book and film release, and loved them all.
One one hand, it is an honor to be able to identify so closely with the protagonist of an internationally renowned series set where I call home. On the other, I wonder what the implications may be for readers’ understanding of Appalachia as a place as well as a literature. While I and the women in my family see ourselves reflected in characters like Katniss and Lucy Gray, and our scarred yet still beautiful landscape reflected in Collins’ descriptions of District 12, what do readers in the rest of the U.S., as well as the rest of the world, see projected in these elements of the bestselling books?
I would go on to leave the mountains and study literature in Pittsburgh, one of few Appalachian cities. As I hunted for stories set in West Virginia to act as a salve for my homesickness, I would find nothing remotely similar to Collins’ dystopian fiction. Granted, the realm of literary fiction where most Appalachian authors have found a home and the realm of Young Adult dystopian novels could not be further isolated away from each other. The nearest Appalachian text, thematically, to the Hunger Games I encountered was Radnall Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits, a speculative narrative which weaves scenes of unconscionable gender violence alongside poetic Christian motifs. I’m left wondering, why the absence of dystopian themes in contemporary Appalachian fiction? Is it that the region’s widespread systemic crises begetting mass poverty, addiction, and environmental degradation feel dystopian enough as is? I consider the literary fiction of Breece D’J Pancake, whose characters, dialogue, and landscapes of West Virginia are so mired in realism the story seems to be told through a dream-like haze, nearly opposite Collin’s writing style. I am also reminded of Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a well-respected literary memoir which is partially set in Welch, West Virginia, a coal town in the initial stages of economic decline at the time she recounts. Even though only a portion of the book is set here, and even though, much like Collins, Walls moved around the country as a child and now makes her home in New York City, The Glass Castle feels like much more of an authentically Appalachian story. Why might this be? Is The Hunger Games an Appalachian story, or is it just using Appalachia as a backdrop?
Collins did undergo some controversy in response to her attempt to read Katniss’ voice in a broken Appalachian accent and ultimately, characters from District 12 would speak a straight Standard American English in the films. I do feel a sense of wariness at any representation of Appalachian identity written by someone who appears to be on the outside, without roots or connection to the region. It is often fairly easy to tell which representations are created by “outsiders” (ahem, J.D. Vance) instead of those connected to the region by familial and economic ties. However, the conventions of YA fiction tend to dilute the markers of authenticity often easier to recognize in literary fiction. What concerns me the most is the combination of the series’ global popularity, Collins’ lack of apparent connection to the region, and her lack of disruption of common stereotypes of Appalachian people.
In Songbirds, we are ultimately presented with a District 12 populace who are oftentimes physically violent, partake in heteronormative gender feuds, and who are viewed through the lens of the metropolitan, wealthy, and powerful Snow as lower-class citizens. When Snow first visits the district, we are presented with an underdeveloped place and impoverished people. Collins writes:
“As the truck drove around the perimeter of the district, the buildings went from dingy to squalid. The doors and windows of the decrepit houses gaped in the heat. Hollow-faced women sat on doorsteps, watching half-naked children with sharp rib cages playing listlessly in the dirt. In some yards, pumps attested to the lack of running water, and the sagging power lines suggested that electricity was not guaranteed.”
Thinking in terms of how neoliberal state power has drained Appalachia of resources with little to no recourse, there is not a world of difference between the fictional District 12 and today’s rural Appalachia. For me and my family, this is why the story rang so true. I wonder though, if for others, this is a means for which the harsh reality of the conditions in rural Appalachia becomes a fiction: something imaginable, but presently unreal, despite that some areas in the region do not have clean water (1) (2) (3), internet connectivity can be difficult to obtain, and hunger remains a serious issue for many (1) (2).
I also question how Collins uses the trope of the strong rural Appalachian woman. Readers now know the stories of two women from District 12 who, against all odds, survive state-imposed violence. Their grit, will, and intelligence, along with their ability to release their abjection against murdering another innocent person, get them through their trials. I have found in my own research the most common stereotypical characteristic applied to Appalachian characters seems not to be “unintelligent” or “uneducated” (though this is as common as it is problematic). Instead, it is “strong”, “tough”, or “rugged.” My place here is not to judge the validity of these stereotypes, nor whether they are good or bad. However, I think when a certain group is nearly always represented as strong, there is a force not allowing them to be weak, tired, delicate, or ailing — and many rural Appalachians are sometimes, as they navigate lack of access to medical care, rising costs coupled with lack of economic opportunity, and a much higher risk of mental health and drug use issues than other Americans. I do not speak on these issues with the intention of painting the region and its people in a negative light — I do not wish to have grown up or been educated anywhere else, and generally speaking, rural Appalachian people are the kindest and most generous of people I have encountered anywhere. However, it is important to be realistic about the challenges the region faces, if for no other reason than as a means to build collective resiliency and fight for the economic resources we have ultimately sacrificed our region’s wellness, prosperity, and biodiversity for.
I believe the first way to begin overcoming a challenge against an oppressive force is to get the story right, because more likely than not the oppressor will attempt to make others, as well as their target, believe a story which works in the favor of the status-quo. Collins teaches this fact in a poignant and compelling manner as we see rebels square up against the totalitarian Capitol government in a propaganda campaign in Mockingjay. As we attempt to save rural Appalachia from further decline, we must decide for ourselves: What is the story of rural Appalachia? What about that of Appalachian womanhood and diversity? While there may be a place for The Hunger Games, Katniss, and Lucy Gray in our understanding of these stories, our history and identity is something much more complex, and perhaps even something much more radical than the stories we presently have can imagine.