J.D. Vance grew up spending idyllic summers exploring in the “holler” at his great-grandmother’s house in rural Kentucky, catching turtles and frogs, playing with cousins, and exploring the mountains of his ancestors.
He also grew up trying to escape an addicted mother; navigating a revolving door of pseudo-stepfathers; and moving from home to home as his mother’s whims dictated. His mother, in the throes of drug addiction like so many others in Vance’s decidedly lower middle-class neighborhood in Ohio, once threatened to crash her car and kill them both (Vance was 12 at the time). When she pulled over to beat him, he jumped out of the car and ran to a stranger’s house for help, where his mother broke the door down and was subsequently arrested.
Vance’s fascinating memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, is a mix of admiration and love for his Appalachian forebears, and anguish at the toll those hill-country values have taken on family life, not only his own but his community’s. Far from boring, it’s also bleakly frank, paying homage to his culture’s many strengths while decrying the self-inflicted mindset that keeps them down.
Mountain culture remains one of the most persistent and unchanging regional subcultures in the country. In Appalachia, family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain remarkably intact compared to other regions. According to Vance, “This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits–an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country–but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.”
Vance grew up in southern Ohio, just one of many lower middle-class descendants of relatives who left the Kentucky coal mines in search of a better life away from the grinding Appalachian poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. His grandparents, like so many other Kentuckians, left for Ohio in the late 1940s…a move so common that Dwight Yoakam wrote a song about the migrants who took Route 23 out of Kentucky to what they hoped would be a better life.
But Vance learned growing up that while you can take the family out of the holler, it might be impossible to take the holler out of the family. The problems they ran from in the hills followed them: low social mobility; poverty; divorce; drug addiction…all are rampant in Vance’s community. He escaped by joining the military, parlaying it into a college education, and achieving the unlikely goal of graduating from Yale Law School. (Vance quickly learned that his background was unique at Yale, to say the least; he includes a poignant description of a class dinner where, while the other students from moneyed backgrounds ate confidently, he crept away to call his girlfriend to ask her what fork to use.)
People growing up in an environment filled with social ills like those described in Vance’s book tend to internalize a certain inferiority, and, in Vance’s experience, it’s easy for many of them to give up. Vance cites surveys that identify working-class whites as the most pessimistic group in America; more pessimistic than both Latino immigrants and black Americans, even though both groups’ material prospects lag far behind those of whites. As he points out, in this culture, people react to bad circumstances in the worst way possible; poor-white culture “increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” There is a lack of agency–a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. Studies have shown that this mindset is typical in low-income black neighborhoods too…a fact not lost on Vance, who points out that low-income blacks and whites have much more in common with each other than low-income whites might have been led to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign season.
What makes this book appealing is that Vance tackles these tough issues through the prism of his own story. Stories of his hotheaded but steadfast Mamaw from southeastern Kentucky, whom he credits with rescuing him from a drug-addicted, unreliable mother, bring the Appalachian migrant story to life (she once set her drunken husband on fire, and occasionally served him garbage for dinner).
Published in June 2016, Hillbilly Elegy hit a nerve during that year’s election cycle. The working-class poor of Vance’s childhood had an outsized impact on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and Hillbilly Elegy topped best-seller lists. Vance’s ability to serve as a guide to the anger and pessimism in the communities that carried Donald Trump quickly made him the go-to guy to represent America’s white underclass on CNN and for the New York Times.
There are those with roots in Appalachia who have resented the portrait painted by Vance as being done with too broad a brush. Not everyone, certainly, in Appalachia has succumbed to the welfare-queen state he describes. In addition, some feel that Vance, who put himself through college working three jobs and with the help of the Marines, seems to think that if everybody just works hard and joins the military they’ll end up at Yale Law too.
Vance, for his part, has rejected that perception of the book, and has stated that his goal is simply to show that “community and family matter”…that your primarily influences in childhood, both positive and negative, have lasting consequences.
In these days of the most intense divisiveness our country has ever known, there is great value in understanding “the other side.” Hillbilly Elegy is a window into a world that, “Roseanne” aside, is often dismissed in popular culture…and it’s worth a read.
Katy Epler is a writer, an historian, and a pop-culture enthusiast who is making her way through decades worth of Entertainment Weekly’s Best Books of the Year lists, and then representing them to us in a modern light. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org