Hillbilly Elegy: review

Hillbilly Elegy
J.D. Vance
Harper Collins

I first heard J.D. Vance talk about his memoir on Fresh Air last August–a month later, my The New Yorker  featured Vance and the book. hillbilly elegyThrough the summer and into fall, I could hardly listen to a newscast or talk show without hearing his name. This thirty-something Appalachian native was man of the moment, and his experience was said to provide an explanation for the rise of Trump and the Alt-Right movement.

I’m not sure I’d go that far.

But I do think Vance lays open the lives of people we don’t see on TV (unless you count the Beverly Hillbillies which could hardly be considered as social commentary) or read about in Newsweek. Vance’s family roots are in the hills of Kentucky and southern Ohio, where life is hard-scrabble enough without the added stress of coal and steel plant closings, unemployment, and the opioid drug epidemic. Vance speaks lovingly (but honestly) about his maternal grandmother, Bonnie Vance, who gave him the structure he so desperately needed growing up–even though Mamaw was a gun-toting hillbilly who had a gift for foul language and wouldn’t think twice about throwing a punch if she thought it was warranted. He grew up idolizing the men in his family who drank and drugged and womanized, but would fight to the death for their family honor. People who are not only suspicious of outsiders, but of the culture and values of Middle America.

But I think his revelations have as much to do with poverty as with geography. Most teachers are familiar with the work of Ruby Payne, whose influential work Framework for Understanding Poverty differentiates between situational and generational poverty and explains how upper, middle, and lower class values are at odds.  I heard echoes of Payne’s work in Elegy. Over the twenty-some years I’ve been a public school teacher, it’s clear that many students (even those in my small Midwest district) don’t fare well in school because they grow up in many of the same circumstances as Vance’s hillbillies: unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, the glorification of violence and sex. And students succeed in school–even despite adolescent rebellion–if they’ve been taught to value hard-work, delayed gratification, self-discipline, and ambition. If you’re unemployed through no fault of your own (say, a plant closing), no amount of hard-work will bring back that factory–and any ambition is useless. That cycle–the one Vance grew up in–is an incubator for abuse, addiction, and family disaster. It’s not the color of your skin or where you live so much as it is learning what must be valued to move ahead.

What I found most compelling was Vance’s life after he left college and law school when he comes to recognize that the ways he had coped for years weren’t working. That isolation or lashing out or running away weren’t going to serve him well as he developed relationships in the wider world. What works in Kentucky doesn’t in D.C. or Chicago. Payne would say he had to learn the hidden rules of the educated middle and upper classes to be successful. It was Vance’s refusal to accept the dysfunctional coping mechanisms he learned growing up that touched me most.

For all that Vance has been in the spotlight, he’s also received some criticism, most notably from Progressives–Sarah Jones’s article in New Republic provides an interesting counterpoint and more food for thought. Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating look into a world I knew little about.

But in the end, this is one man’s account and it might best be read as a story of his transformation.

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