Hillbilly Elegy is a different kind of memoir, one that serves a larger purpose and one that could not be more apropos in this election year.
J.D. Vance was born in Kentucky hill country to a numerous family, one side of which was related to the infamous Hatfields of the Hatfield-McCoy feud. The coal mines played out and like many Kentuckians his family followed work to Middletown, Ohio.
As Papaw knew when he was a young man, the best way up for the hillbilly was out.
Might have been more accurate to say it was the only way up, but never mind. There in Middletown did young J.D. live until graduating from high school. As his addict mother went through husbands and rehab, J.D. and his sister found refuge with their grandparents, Papaw and especially Mamaw.
“Set one foot on my fucking porch, and I’ll blow it off,” she advised. “I thought she might be serious,” [Vance’s Marine Corps recruiter] later told me. So they had their talk while he stood in the front yard.
Nobody messed with Bonnie Vance or her kin, not even the Marines.
And then the work in Middletown went away, and the expat Kentuckians went broke and life just generally went to hell. A lucky few moved or married out; the rest stayed and slowly deteriorated out of the middle class. Work ethic is a phrase honored here (and back in Kentucky) more in theory than in practice; an acquaintance of Vance’s quit work because the job made him get up too early in the morning. Like Mamaw, hillbillies used to believe in two things, Jesus Christ and the United States of America, and they’ve lost any faith they had in the latter. These are the people Barack Obama meant when he made that clinging to guns and religion remark.
Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it–not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.
Um, and he’s black, although Vance says that has nothing to do with the hillbilly hatred and fear of Obama. Uh-huh.
Vance acknowledges that the federal government had a great deal to do with him making it out himself, beginning with public school, then the Marine Corps, then a public university, and finally assistance to Yale Law School. He says he couldn’t have succeeded and could not now continue to succeed without many thumbs on his scale, beginning with Papaw and Mamaw. It takes a village, although I’m sure no hillbilly in Vance’s book would appreciate that analogy, given that the phrase was usurped by their Anti-Christ for a book title.
He concludes with a story about a young Appalachian man named Brian, raised in similar circumstances.
…we hillbillies must wake the hell up. Brian’s mom’s death was another shitty card in an already abysmal hand, but there are many cards left to deal: whether his community empowers him with a sense that he can control his own destiny or encourages him to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond control…I believe we hillbillies are the toughest goddamned people on this earth…But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian?
Are they? That is the question. ‘Refuge in resentment at forces beyond control’ is the impetus behind the alt-right takeover of the GOP this year. The hillbilly culture Vance writes of is the product of two generations of a long, downward spiral and it isn’t going to snap back on a dime if and when it ever starts to turn around. Vance lives in San Francisco now.
Well-written, and an informative if depressing read. Recommended.
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.