Hot Dogs and Fallout 76: Review of Making Our Future by Emily Hilliard

Ellie Campbell

Under Review:
Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia. Emily Hilliard. University of North Carolina Press, November 2022.

 To do the work of a folklorist is inherently to believe in the future.

The work of memory institutions and the people who inhabit them—archivists, librarians, museum workers, and documentarians—is often assumed to be about the past. That assumption is doubly true for projects about American regions like Appalachia or the Deep South. Dominant cultural stereotypes frame these places as stuck in the past, clinging to Lost Cause narratives, reactionary politics, and conservative religions. But those beliefs are not the only ones that exist in those places. The practice of documenting contrasting beliefs and complicating those stereotypes can provide liberatory models, less faithful to an imagined past than to a vision of a better future. 

In Making Our Future: Visionary Folklore and Everyday Culture in Appalachia, Emily Hilliard convincingly argues that Appalachian folklife is deeply concerned with the future. Hilliard’s book draws on the six years she spent as the state folklorist for West Virginia. Making Our Future approaches that work thoughtfully and with a deep sense of ethics. Mindful of the fraught nature of outsiders engaging with an oft-stereotyped culture and the myriad ways narratives about Appalachia have served to exploit the region, Hilliard turns to a practice she terms “collective ethnography”. Unlike more traditional methods, which often involve an educated outsider traveling to a remote place to document an othered people and their practices, collective ethnography is open-ended and non-hierarchical. Mutually directed interviews, for example, encourage narrators to ask Hilliard about her work and experiences of West Virginia life, as well as answer her questions and discuss their lives, creating a shared conversation and ongoing dialogue. Hilliard also shared drafts with participants and incorporated their feedback as a way to allow them to shape the final work, rather than just serve as interviewees. 

The result is a book that digs deep into the complicated and fraught everyday life of West Virginians and how they construct their past to inform and imagine their future. Though published by an academic press and deeply engaged in scholarship, Hilliard’s book aims for an audience beyond academia. Her style, methodological choices, and subjects emphasize the need to make folklore studies accessible to and useful for the communities she documents, as well as readers outside of the region. 

Making Our Future is an important intervention in a field that has too often constructed Appalachian culture as stuck in the past, and Hilliard’s non-hierarchical methodology offers a framework for future work that might also consider conservative and reactionary culture in the region as also connecting past, present, and future. 

Each chapter presents a case study of communities in West Virginia engaged in expressive culture that bridges the past, present, and future. In most chapters, futuristic narratives are more subtle. Making Our Future covers topics as diverse as women’s songwriting practices that imagine different pasts and futures for themselves and the region; foodways and changing traditions in a tiny community descended from Swiss immigrants; and the expressive culture of the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike, documenting posters, t-shirts, songs, and other community practices that advocated for a better future for the state’s teachers and students. The chapter on West Virginia hot dogs (on a steamed bun with mustard, chili, onions, and sometimes coleslaw) is a delight to read: an insightful dive into the complicated history, present, and endangered future of a common food. 

The most overt engagement with futurity appears in Hilliard’s chapter on Fallout 76, a post-apocalyptic online role-playing game set in Appalachia in 2102. Developed by Bethesda Game Studios and released in 2018, the game’s action takes place in a digital world closely modeled on West Virginia. Players fight zombie-like figures to secure several nuclear vaults and defeat a final villain, securing a future in which humans can repopulate the region and thus, the world. Because the game takes place in an open world and is not confined to a linear narrative, Fallout 76 players have room to develop their own culture and practices within the game. Hilliard documents how players interact with the representations of West Virginia folklife and create their own practices in a mix of mass produced and folk culture. 

Fallout 76 screenshot from Bethesda’s official site.

Fallout 76 represents the tensions that arise when the commons of Appalachian expressive culture are turned into a commodity. Hilliard places the game in the context of the “construction of heritage commodities for tourist consumption” in Appalachia. She compares Fallout 76 with local color narratives from the late nineteenth century, which portrayed the region as “other” to reify the middle-class culture of coastal cities like New York. Magazines like Harper’s and Scribner’s sent writers to the region to explore the “exotic corner” of a strange land untouched by urban progress. Like those narratives, Fallout 76 uses the West Virginia imaginary for its own purposes. Through the game’s startlingly accurate rendition of many West Virginia landscapes and landmarks, the creators use the region to project the anxieties of late capitalism: nuclear war, environmental devastation, the automation of labor, and more. 

Unlike local color narratives, Fallout 76 places the state and region firmly in the future, though still “other” to most of the game’s consumers.  This move defamiliarizes the present, allowing players to imagine other futures for the region, as well as being able to imagine West Virginia as a center of rebirth and renewal, rather than a sacrifice zone of present-day capital. But the game still extracts West Virginia culture and fails to represent the most important and dynamic part of the state: the people who inhabit it. Without people, the game offers no opportunity “to understand or develop a meaningful relationship with…the people and communities who constitute that culture and inhabit those spaces.” Without virtual people, West Virginia culture is a dead landscape open for extraction, presenting a future that mirrors the present treatment of the state’s material and cultural resources. 

In closing, Hilliard argues that “West Virginia communities offer potent examples of how expressive culture fortifies identity and creates shared narratives that the collective can apply to further resist structural inequality and oppression.” Making Our Future focuses on practices that push back against conservative stereotypes of West Virginia, centering liberatory opportunities and narratives amidst the state’s environmental damage, extractive industry, tourism economy, and labor struggle. Hilliard does not, however, address how everyday culture can work to uphold oppression, or how the state’s politically conservative cultures imagine their own pasts, presents, and futures. Even when discussing, for example, stereotypes portrayed in independent wrestling events, Hilliard focuses more on the experiences of women and people of color in those spaces, quoting from interviews where they discuss what they get out of wrestling despite misogynistic or racist portrayals of characters in the shows. Not all expressive culture in West Virginia is liberatory; the everyday practices of local political parties, conservative churches, and the prison-industrial complex likely work to uphold those reactionary institutions and imagine oppressive futures. Nevertheless, Making Our Future is an important intervention in a field that has too often constructed Appalachian culture as stuck in the past, and Hilliard’s non-hierarchical methodology offers a framework for future work that might also consider conservative and reactionary culture in the region as also connecting past, present, and future. 

Making Our Future documents West Virginia in the late 2010s, depicting a state and people struggling under difficult material realities and deeply connected to place. Hilliard emphasizes that their imaginative work is connected to the future just as much as anything that might happen in a tech hub or major urban area, and that West Virginia can provide roadmaps for a more liberatory future by paying attention to the practices and culture of its everyday people, fighting to make their world a better place.

Ellie Campbell (she/her) is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Reference Librarian at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She recently completed an MFA in Documentary Expression from the University of Mississippi with a thesis project on Pride Parades in the state. She is from Anniston, Alabama. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The reviewer and editors were acquainted through previous ARB work. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Cynthia Zhang. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

ARB is a affiliate and may receive a portion of book sales purchased through links on this page. Please visit our Support & Transparency page to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s