Refuge in resentment at forces beyond their control.

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[from my 2016 Goodreads review]

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 they’re Black, although Vance says that has nothing to do with the hillbilly hatred and fear of the Obamas. 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 their 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 their control’ is the impetus behind the alt-right takeover of the GOP. 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 California now.


Note on 2/1/19: A comparison of Tara Westover’s Educated and Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in the NYT here, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/op….

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Native Kentuckian, whose people came with Daniel through the Gap. Hillbilly Culture, (or whatever the name is this go-round) is much older than two generations. The Settlers of the KY mountains were generally Scots, Irish, or both. They were generally driven from their land by the British, and came here for sanctuary. And, they found it hidden away in the coves and hollows of the beautiful
    Mountains. Game was plentiful, and that, plus a garden patch, would see a family nicely. The soil is poor. No large farms are there. Times changed. Migration to Ohio was a way for men to care for their families. Soon, the families followed. The beautiful language, using words familiar to us in Shakespearean-age writings, all but disappeared. The mountains have changed. The people have changed. The spirit of caring for your neighbor is fading. My great-aunt, Miss Gabie Robertson, taught Kentucky History at Western Kentucky University, and would sit me down with maps, lists, and books, so that I would keep the history alive. It is a fascinating history, at times joyful, and at times, heartbreaking.
    We mustn’t forget the true Settlers. At least seven separate Native American Tribes hunted here, fought each other fiercely, then left to go back to their territory, only to repeat for hundreds of years, before being forever ousted by horrible wars.
    Janice Holt Giles’ book, “Hannah Fowler”, is a work of historical fiction, based somewhat loosely on what might be fact. It is a good book to read.

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