Title: Hillbilly Elegy
Rating: 3 Stars
With Trump’s election, this has been one of the books that has been held up as some kind of attempt to explain it. It is a kind of strange combination of memoir and social analysis.
As a memoir (even if it is the memoir of a 31 year old man), it is extremely moving. It provides a microscopic view of a sub-culture in America that does not usually reveal itself for inspection.
J.D. Vance was born a through and through Kentucky hillbilly (he calls himself that). He’s actually from something approaching hillbilly royalty. On his father’s side, he is a distant relation to Jim Vance, who was one of the key leaders of the Hatfield-McCoy feud (on the Hatfield side). On his mother’s side, his grandmother was legendary as one of the toughest hillbillies around.
He actually lived most of his childhood in Middleton, Ohio, but his family’s roots are in Jackson, Kentucky.
He learned the ways of the Scots-Irish from his very earliest days. In the early days of the republic, the Scots-Irish were known to be fighters. You can read narratives from the 19th century where fights in the Appalachian region would regularly lead to eyes being gouged out and ears being torn off.
Even now, any apparent insult to honor leads to brutality. Once someone insulted the mother of one of his relatives. That relative beat the man senseless and then cut him up with a power saw, nearly killing him. Not even arrested, he was instead respected for defending the sacred honor of his mother. In his early days, Vance learns this lesson well.
He had, to say the least, a troubled childhood. His mom was off and on addicted to drugs. Even when not addicted, she clearly had mental issues that included suicide attempts and at least one time when Vance thought she was going to kill him. She was married (I think) five times and took up with numerous other men, many of whom tried to act as some kind of paternal figure to him. At one time, he tried to count the number of siblings (step and half) that he had and figured it was over a dozen.
His life was almost undoubtedly going to end up like those that he knew growing up. There would have been drugs, multiple children with multiple women, jail, unemployment, and just a general sense of defeat.
His saving grace was his grandmother and grandfather, Mamaw and Papaw. Although they themselves were uneducated hill people, they understood the importance of education and wanted Vance to escape his upbringing.
After many difficulties with his mom, he ended up living pretty much permanently with Mamaw. The three years or so that he lived with Mamaw would constitute the longest consistent stretch that he lived throughout his childhood.
After graduating from high school, desiring to attend college but knowing that he wasn’t ready, he joined the Marine Corps. There, he was taught the basic lessons of life (how to get a loan, how to balance a check book) that he never learned. After he was discharged from the Marines, with his new found life skills and iron discipline, he went to Ohio State and ultimately got a law degree from Yale. He considers him a conservative and now works at a venture capital firm that was founded by Peter Theil.
Now, from his perch among the elite, he tries to look back to piece together the path that led him there and whether any lessons can be applied to the Appalachian culture itself.
Considering his background and the obvious deep caring that he has for the people, his opinions must carry weight. He acknowledges the impact that the overall joblessness, loss of manufacturing, and addiction has had on his community.
He also says that choices matter. You can choose not to have three children with three different women. You can choose to work an eight hour day and consistently show up on time every day. You can choose not to take heroin or prescription opioids. You can choose not to give your six month old child Mountain Dew in its bottle.
Those are all fair points. The question that must be asked is, why do people make those choices? When he says those things, he kind of sounds like Bill Cosby telling black kids that they need to pull their damn pants up. He sounds like one of my friends, who says that the problem is not racism but black culture.
OK, but from where does the roots of black culture rise if not from systemic racism? And from where does the roots of Appalachian culture rise if not from centuries of oppression? I recently read about this in White Trash. Quite literally from when settlers first landed in Jamestown and Plymouth, there was a need for what was then called ‘Waste People’. These were people who came over to be worked to death. There was no American dream for them. There was no education for them. There was toil and misery and an early death.
For a personal description of why smart people make poor decisions, I strongly recommend that you read “Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America”. It’s a first hand story of Linda Tirado and her struggle to emerge out of poverty and the seemingly poor decisions that she made along the way.
Work ethic and good decisions can lift someone out of poverty. Until we acknowledge that our country has not equipped tens of millions of people with the tools to allow them to make good choices, it seems unfair to condemn them for there lack thereof.