J. D. Vance is quite vocal about being a hillbilly. He states it in the first page of his book, Hillbilly Elegy, and reiterates it several times per chapter. He’s also quite adamant that being a hillbilly is, at best, a two-edged sword. This is witnessed by the volume’s subtitle: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
The key word in that subtitle is memoir. Vance is up front about this not being an academic study but instead a personal story with observations that he hopes will illuminate both the familial and cultural issues prevalent in Appalachia that are hamstringing the people of this region. The key to enjoying this book is keeping that idea in mind. It does make academic and sociological arguments and is peppered throughout with references to actual studies, but much of what Vance has to say is borne of his experiences growing up in the Rust Belt in Ohio and in Appalachia, specifically the small hill town of Jackson, Kentucky.
This book has been the subject of controversy on two counts. First, there is a school of thought that says he is not a true “hillbilly.” This is because he lived pretty much his whole life in Middletown, Ohio. In my opinion, he dispatches that argument pretty quickly and anyone who really reads the book with an open mind would realize it is specious.
And second, a lot of people, especially progressive folks who are entrenched in the idea that all social ills can be solved by the right government program, feel like he has betrayed his own people. This despite the fact that he advocates for, as he puts it, putting a thumb on the scale to help those who are disadvantaged. What many seem to object to is the rather extensive thread that runs through his narrative that says no government program can completely fix what ails hillbillies. It is also, in Vance’s view, up to us (I hope I can call myself a hillbilly, though I clearly did not grow up in the chaotic, borderline abusive circumstances that many Appalachian folks have had to endure.) to change our attitudes toward work, responsibility, and family.
I don’t completely know what to do with this book. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that, like Vance I don’t seem to know exactly what to do with the culture I come from. He is, much like I am, simultaneously proud of and dismayed by who he is and where he comes from. And he also seems to feel pretty strongly that the people of Appalachia have been dealt a bad hand, a problem that needs to be remedied. But every single time he says this, he qualifies his opinion with the idea that people need to be responsible for themselves instead of giving up and blaming all their problems on someone else.
The one thing Vance seems to be unwavering about is that, in order to thrive, every person in the world needs at least one person in his or her life who is an unwavering advocate, a point of light toward which to steer. For him, that point of light was his Mamaw. She took him in when his mother proved to be a perpetually leaky vessel and she pushed him to do his best in everything and to depend on himself rather than look to others for his success.
I hope I haven’t given away too much of the ending, but I simply don’t know of another way to discuss this interesting, maddening, at times befuddling book. My ultimate conclusion is that it has caused me to think more about how I view and deal with people who have it harder than I do and what I can do to be a better advocate for my beloved home region. And I hope it isn’t too completely inappropriate to say it has also reinforced in me the already strong feeling that there need to be (shameless plug coming) more people like the leadership of ClutchMOV, who are doing everything they can to point the people of our area in a better, more productive direction. I believe Mr. Vance would view them as part of the solution to our shared dilemma.