Being a fuckup from Upper Arlington is better than being the salutation from Middletown. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance helped me reflect on my own life and appreciation for all of the things that went right when there is so much that could have gone wrong. Mr. Vance’s memoir highlights what it’s like to come of age in a broken home in Middletown, Ohio. Without a few key pieces falling into place he would be alongside his mother in addiction instead of a graduate from the Yale Law School. While Mr. Vance’s memoir is powerful in its own right, it has surged in popularity by being released at the right time.
To be honest, the fact that “Hillbilly Elegy” is a national best seller makes me a little bit angry. It’s not the writing (it is exceptionally well written), or the subject (riveting memories of growing up in Appalachia). I’m angry because I can envision ‘cultured’ denizens of the American Coasts being astonished at the lives these poor folks live in the depressed hill country. While reading “Hillbily Elegy” I had visions of elite New Yorkers grabbing copies in a desperation to understand Trump’s America. “Hillbilly Elegy” is for people who live in the blue bubble, but the rural poor who need to read it never will.
J.D. Vance takes readers along the Hillbilly Highway from Jackson County Kentucky to Middletown Ohio and places between. Waves of migrants left the hills of Appalachia to join the post WWII manufacturing boom occurring across the Midwest in hopes of a better life. In “Hillbilly Elegy” Mr. Vance’s grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) left Appalachia, but Appalachia never left them. The book is filled with tales on how drugs and alcohol destroy people, how people are perceived, and why outsiders can’t be trusted.
“Hillbilly Elegy” describes that families who up-rooted their lives to take part in the manufacturing revolution were sold on a false promise. The single-family home is epitomized as the American dream, but for hillbilly transplants it was a source of isolation. Neighbors would look down their noses at them and family was far away. When viewed through this lens it’s easy to see why so many sought an escape. While the families who migrated might be able to buy a new car their lives were marked with depression and dependence on alcohol.
The memoir feels stagnated for the first two thirds. A rotating cast of father figures and a mother who fights a losing battle with alcohol continues on a near endless cycle with brief interruptions of calm with Mamaw. Nothing progressed. It was a struggle to read and I think it was intentional. Mr. Vance didn’t have any exit. His life was a perpetual story of domestic violence. His lucky breaks were that he was never sexually abused and he had the stability of his Mamaw down the street. If he was beaten, touched, or didn’t have a safe place to run to he never would have made it out of Middletown. The circle of chaos broke his sophomore year of high school when he moved in with Mamaw where his grades improved to the point of admission into Ohio State.
Afraid of being on his own in college, Mr. Vance opted for the marines. Serving in the marine corps taught Vance how to act like a real adult while providing the structure he desperately needed. Discharging four years later he began his undergraduate education at Ohio State and gained acceptance into the Yale Law School. At Yale, he discovers the hidden door of the elites. He didn’t fit in. He had to call his girlfriend for help with what all the forks were for at an employer networking dinner. Over time he learned that the elites have a weapon for their success: social capital. It was not about how good your resume was, it was about who you could be connected with. The best deals are never advertised, you have to know someone.
“Hillbilly Elegy” should be read by everyone. It speaks to the core of our American division. I think the book is wildly popular for the wrong reasons, but if it helps the people in political bubbles understand the other side a little better than that’s a good thing. While the problems of depressed America are identified, “Hillbilly Elegy” stops short of providing any solutions. Solutions, Mr. Vance says, are complicated. There is no silver bullet legislation to heal the wounds of rust belt economies. I think solutions can be found in other books which focus on human nature.
We, as a society, tend to look down on hillbillies. After reading “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger and “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari, hillbillies might actually be living a better life than city folk in many respects. Hillbilly culture is tribal. At the center of the tribe is family. Hillbilly families are close nit with uncles and grandparents living in close proximity. Mr. Vance’s grandparents only lived a couple houses away. Proximity to family in small towns isolated in deep valleys is the perfect union for a tribe like society to flourish. In the end, the tribal attitudes might make for a happier life.
Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance
Published by Harper; Reprint edition (June 28, 2016)