Hillbilly Elegy (review)

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Written by J.D. Vance
Reviewed by Alexandra Hopkins

 

J.D. Vance is a self-described hillbilly. Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s memoir, published in 2016, about how he grew up in Appalachian culture, graduated from Ohio State, and then graduated from Yale Law School. He is now in his mid-thirties and is an executive in a Silicon Valley investment firm.

This book gave me exactly what I had hoped for – insights into the lives of working-class people who live in Appalachia or who originated in Appalachia and then moved to industrial cities in the Rust Belt. Many are Trump supporters, and after listening twice to the audiobook of this memoir, I feel much more understanding of Trump voters. I see that we have a problem in America – well, that’s not big news!

Underlying our current political crisis is a segment of Americans who are deeply unhappy. They are the people whose life expectancies are declining rather than increasing, the people who are succumbing to the current opioid epidemic. And it’s not just an educational problem; it’s also a cultural problem. It’s a problem that starts in the home.

I looked up three words as I read this book, to understand this problem better:  1) “Appalachia” is a region within the southern Appalachian Mountains, inland and away from the coast. It includes parts of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, the Virginias, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Alabama. This is an approximate definition; there’s a lack of consensus as to the boundaries. 2) “Hillbillies” is the pejorative term that many outsiders use for residents of Appalachia. However, J.D. Vance uses it as a badge of honor. 3) An “elegy” is a lament or a mournful poem about someone who has died. I asked myself, “Who died in this book?” One answer is J.D. Vance’s beloved grandparents, but the title also refers to the dying economies of Appalachia and the northern industrial cities that many Appalachian families have moved to.

J.D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio. His grandparents had escaped to Middletown after running away from disapproval in Kentucky, where his thirteen-year-old grandmother had gotten pregnant. Vance’s grandparents were part of the “Hillbilly Highway,” the migration from Appalachia to the northern cities of the Middle West and the Great Lakes.

Coal mining had been a mainstay of Appalachia in the 1800’s. But as the profitability of coal mining declined between 1910 and 1960, millions of Appalachian families migrated to steel refineries and manufacturing plants in cities like Detroit and Cleveland. Cities like these eventually became the “Rust Belt,” when robots and lower-paid workers abroad replaced unionized American workers.

The Appalachian family structure is based on a form of machismo that is core to the Scots-Irish culture. A Scots-Irish father typically rules the family in an authoritarian, violent manner. The culture is famous for protecting family honor with vigilante violence and endless feuds. Outsiders are feared and hated. These traditions were continued in the Hillbilly culture.

This type of family culture doesn’t emphasize or develop basic interpersonal skills like treating others with respect and tolerance, communicating, managing anger, or being able to forgive and move on. Such skills are not essential for coal-mining, subsistence farming in the hills, nor even in construction or manufacturing. But they are essential in urban, corporate, service-oriented sectors of the economy in which people from all over the world participate.

J.D. Vance loves his Hillbilly roots and is currently laying plans to return to Ohio to help the families that he grew up with. That love shines through this memoir and helps us to understand his Hillbillies. I would like to tell you more about ideas I got from this book – what happened to the hillbilly macho culture when the men were clobbered by massive unemployment, how women’s liberation may have contributed to misogyny in Trump voters, and more – but I hope that you read Hillbilly Elegy for yourself.  ~~~

Alexandra Hopkins attends Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena (PYM).