"Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" By J.D. Vance

Oct 5, 2016

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’

Author: J.D. Vance

Publisher: HarperCollins             

Pages: 272

Price: $ 27.00 (Hardcover)

“Hillbilly Elegy” has recently attracted a load of attention, partly by fortunate timing.

The book is, first, a conventional memoir. J.D. Vance tells the story of his life.

Second, it is a report on a subculture in American society, the Scots-Irish, more or less, of Appalachia and the industrial Midwest, where many residents of Kentucky moved a couple of generations ago for good jobs in factories which have now mostly closed, leaving them trapped. But they did not escape Kentucky culture; they brought it with them.

Third, although Donald Trump is not mentioned, might there be clues here to the Trump phenomenon? These are angry whites. Will readers learn why they support Trump? Basically, no.

Vance’s life story is well told. His grandparents, Papaw and Mamaw, migrated, with thousands of their landsmen, from Kentucky hollers to Ohio factory towns, looking for the better life.

Factories recruited them, sometimes from specific towns, even from extended families, to work in the same shop. This made for some cultural comfort and for continuity, not all of it good.

(This is not so unusual. One might learn, for example, that many of the Greeks in a given American city emigrated from the same Aegean island.)

Vance’s personal story is a bloody train wreck with a happy ending. Raised in a madly dysfunctional home, he endured his mother’s alcoholism, drug addiction, rehabs, poor mental health, rages and a succession of men, five of whom she married. At 14, Vance was taken in by Mamaw.

(By the way, Vance tells us, authoritatively, hillbillies, and only hillbillies, use Mamaw exclusively –never Granny, Grandma, and so on. I take his word for it.)

Mamaw was no angel. Herself pregnant at 13, she was tough, obscene and violent. When Papaw came home drunk one time too many and passed out on the couch, she poured gasoline on him and set him on fire, but she gave Vance a stable home and insisted he study.

After high school and the Marine Corps, Vance, now a more confident adult, graduated from Ohio State and Yale law. He had exchanged “learned helplessness” for “willfulness,” for “control.”

Vance knows his people and is brutally honest about their virtues and faults, their irrationality and contradictions.

In their violent “honor culture,” going to the law is frowned on. These are the Hatfields and McCoys, literally.

There is ferocious family loyalty, but “Our homes are a chaotic mess.” Husbands are often unfaithful and abusive and parents often neglectful of their children. “Marriage conflict resolution” is screaming insults. “It’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first.” The stress of domestic violence traumatizes children permanently.

When asked, hillbillies profess powerful Christian religious beliefs but “Appalachia—especially northern Alabama …. has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West and much of the space between Michigan and Montana.”

When asked about churchgoing, people lie.

Folks “blather on,” extolling Hard Work while gaming their welfare system. Vance says: “you can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” “[M]any folks talk about working more than they work,” often losing or quitting jobs if the work is tedious or starts too early in the morning.

Men don’t do women’s work –and that includes a lot of jobs.

The list goes on.

Hillbillies are patriotic but not active citizens.

Money is handled badly, with little saving, much splurging on luxuries, giant TV’s and so on.

Organized exercise is nonexistent. Eating habits are dreadful. “We rarely cook.” Instead, there are “Pillsbury cinnamon rolls for breakfast, Taco Bell for lunch, and McDonald’s for dinner.” New to me was “Mountain Dew mouth”: rotten teeth from a lifetime consumption of soda.

The culture is plagued by suicide and heroin overdose.

Vance does not blame the schools or teachers. They did their best. Although he describes himself as a conservative, Vance disagrees with those who say: “It’s not your fault that you’re a loser. It’s the government’s fault,” even though he believes liberal programs, however well-intentioned, have not helped much.

His answer?

The people in the “hillbilly” culture must recognize their culture is in collapse, and save it themselves. Marry and raise the children together. Make fewer excuses; exercise more responsibility. He’s not too optimistic.

No piece of legislation will fix this; it is not a Rubik’s cube problem to be solved, although he offers one idea. Neighborhoods should be mixed, not segregated by income in “a bigger pool of hopelessness,” so children might see successful, functioning families in everyday life and see that choices matter. The best idea in the short run is to identify promising individuals and save them, as he was saved by Mamaw and a few other caring mentors.

Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.”