Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
In the introduction to Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, he admits he finds the existence of this book “absurd.” After reading it, I have to agree with him. This review will read a little bit like a rant.
A Little Context
Jackson, Kentucky is the seat of Breathitt County, a small town in a big county nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Built on the banks of the North Fork Kentucky River, Jackson was once a bustling timber and coal town. The decline of the coal industry meant coal jobs vacated Jackson in the 70’s/80’s. Fairly recently, however, the coal temple located off Hwy 30 W outside Jackson city limits has opened back up, igniting a spark of memory and hope in the locals.
The town of Jackson and the communities in the surrounding county don’t have a lot of things to make us hope these days. Our children continue to be our biggest source of inspiration. We transfer our broken dreams onto their small shoulders, put all our resources into their education, their abilities, and hope they will achieve the dreams we never had the opportunities to achieve. It’s why, in the currently raging debate on statewide K-12 education in Kentucky, we so staunchly defend teachers and are willing to take on the burden of higher taxes to provide a well-funded pension system for them. Though our legislators seem to be struggling with the logistics of actually fixing said pension system using any method. Lawyers have a way of muddying these things.
Take Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Yale Law School graduate. California resident. Marine vet. Self-described hillbilly. But not really.
There Are No Hillbillies Here
I cannot find fault in all of Vance’s book or his experiences as he escapes from a difficult domestic situation. That is an understatement. He had a Hell of a childhood and his teen years seemed to have been worse. I sympathize. He had a difficult life growing up with an unstable mother and rotating cast of fathers. As he mentions (repeatedly), he was able to overcome those difficulties and achieve a happy, successful (to date) life.
But this book is not about hillbillies. This book is not about Appalachia. This book is not about Jackson, Kentucky however often he invokes our name, invokes hurtful stereotypes that weren’t true even in the 40’s when his grandparents out-migrated for work in Ohio at the tender ages of 17 and 14.
The Jackson, Kentucky he describes is not the Jackson, Kentucky I was raised in and now raise my daughter in. The majority of the book, as a memoir of an individual growing up in Middletown, Ohio, joining the Marines, then going to Ohio State and Yale Law, has nothing substantial to do with Jackson, Kentucky, Appalachia, or “hillbillies.” He has a habit through the book of imposing the bad habits and poor choices of his family members on their status as transplanted hillbillies.
Let’s be clear, his Mamaw is mentally ill. She did a heroic thing, taking her grandchildren in like that but her actions are clearly unhinged. Her birthplace has nothing to do with her described behavior and mannerisms. I lived with my Jackson, Kentucky grandparents nearly my entire life and they behaved nothing like this. Growing up in Jackson, Kentucky, attending churches, funerals, going through the school system, meeting my friends’ families, marrying another Jackson, Kentucky resident, I have never noticed this behavior as the norm of us “hillbillies.”
I lived down a holler. That’s a road off the main highway. These hollers may be one lane, paved or gravel, and the people who live up them are usually related somewhere down the line. And if they’re not yet, they will be. Hollers are basically the driveway to Appalachian communes. There are wild residents like every other community, but the majority, especially Vance’s grandparents’ generation, behave like any other person in that age group. With a little more cooperation when it comes to feeding each other, tending family farms, and delivering errant cattle.
My grandparents were church-going people, I was pretty much raised in a pew. My Granny sang hymns and my Grandpa taught Sunday school. They dressed to the nines, stockings, slicked back hair, shaved face, and copious clouds of Avon cologne and perfume. They sparred verbally but the swearing and such is not the norm for that generation. I was raised to expect soap in my mouth for uttering a bad word. To be clear, fart was considered one such bad word.
The drug problem in Southeastern Kentucky ranks among the most concerning in the nation. Admittedly we rank close to Middletown, Ohio. But I don’t think the reasons behind our shared problem resonate similarly. I do think the shared opioid addiction is the reason Vance evokes Jackson, Kentucky at all. And named his book what he did, though the title and the references to Kentucky are incredibly misleading and misrepresent his content.
I picked up this book expecting something entirely different and relevant to my culture. It had nothing to do with us, a wasted read. I don’t share Vance’s political ideas. I can’t relate to his experiences being raised in a middle-class family, even struggling with a drug-addicted parent. Growing up in a single wide trailer for much of my childhood, then a doublewide trailer into adolescence and young adulthood, I find it hard to think of him bereft living in a non-mobile home. Being able to buy a house (still in Jackson, KY) with my husband was a huge life achievement for me.
The whole book did read as a kind of appeal for “outsiders” to not judge white, working-class men for voting for Donald Trump. And I just don’t think they need any more help or understanding in that area.
There are several conflicting ideas in Vance’s book, for instance at the end when he puts out a call for action to Jackson, Kentucky to rise up and meet the needs of our at-risk children. But he had spent the beginning of the book exalting the culture for our emphasis on family. It just reflects his deep misunderstanding of the culture and the work being done to protect our kids here in Eastern Kentucky.
Its all well and good to draw attention to social problems afflicting our area (and nation) but Vance offers very few (half-assed) pathways to solutions. In fact, he admits there are no solutions and that we can only hope to save a few. But again, Jackson, Kentucky is not Vance’s home and he doesn’t have to help us. He doesn’t have to live with these problems. Vance escaped his Middletown problems. So, why write a book with emphasis on the problems these areas are facing at all?
After reading his book, I don’t understand his intentions, except to brag that he is successful. I don’t know if he thinks of himself as a hero to poor kids in Appalachia. I hope not, that would be incredibly sad.
As I said before, I sympathize with the struggles he did endure. But I think he greatly exaggerated his position as poor. Maybe its the “hillbilly” in me but I can’t consider him poor when his grandparents were willing to step up financially in cases where they did struggle with his mother’s mismanagement of her money.
Co-Opted Experience For Gain
I grew up poor, one of three kids to a single mother working part-time at the local Walmart (not a supercenter), living in a used, single wide trailer. My grandparents were also poor, legally blind, and unable to work beyond some small-scale farming that kept us in frozen vegetables through the winter. They owned a small plot of land inherited from my great-grandfather and their house was built by some charitable organization or another.
We had food stamps, Medicaid, CHIP, LIHEAP, and welfare. You name a government social program and it probably kept us fed, warm, housed, or alive. These same programs that Vance derides as a crutch for his drug-addicted, domestically challenged neighbors provided opportunities for me that allowed me to stay with my family, kept me and my siblings together and got us through.
Lack of Awareness
These programs evolved from the New Deal Era programs targeted at defeating poverty. Obviously, that hasn’t happened but I think its a little too nail on the head to blame stagnant/declining employment and wages on social welfare as an enabler for “freeloaders.” From my work with local oral histories, I have listened to countless stories from the time period that praised the New Deal for saving the region from total collapse and starvation.
Our Problems Are Bigger Than This Book
Places like Jackson, Kentucky have other much more complex problems keeping us in the hole. Our isolated location, difficult terrain, corrupt local politicians and their large land holdings they refuse to develop/charge high rent for, and crime rate (the name Bloody Breathitt was given to us for our tendency for violence not our WWI volunteer rate, FYI) are just a few of the issues that keep us from achieving the same economic growth as the rest of the nation.
I’m not even sure Vance addressed the employment problem in Jackson, Kentucky, the fact that 30% of our population has left in the last 20 or so years. I believe he was tenuously trying to connect the loss of factory jobs in Middletown to the loss of coal jobs in Kentucky but that isn’t really a fair comparison because we are not located in an area where other industries can easily supplant lost ones. Our roads are woefully out of date, among other infrastructure concerns, and many of our cities are one bad year away from insolvency.
There is a difference in individual poverty and institutional poverty.
I am just a little riled that Vance tried to use my culture, my home, and my people as a way to justify his political ideologies.
I did not enjoy this book, found it to be confusing and uninteresting. His title and summary were unrelated to the actual content of the book. The author posits himself as something poor kids should emulate but he doesn’t seem to understand that kids in poverty lack the resources he had available to him, regardless of his mother’s addiction.