From the Bookshelf: Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance

In my project of reading-books-I-already-have-then-moving-them-along, J. D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was next in the stack.  This came to me by way of my mother-in-law, whom I believe read it for her book club.  She then passed it on to a friend of ours who was visiting her.  The friend read it then passed it on to us.  The book is about contemporary Appalachian culture which is where we live.

I anticipated that the books would be amusing anecdotes about zany back-hallow folks, an easy read-through before putting into my wife’s book pile, before cycling it back to her mother.  I was wrong.

Yes, the book has lots of stories about gnarly grandparents, derelict parents, cousins trapped in white-trash poverty, and a few family and friend who manage to escape the chaos to complete school, build careers, and grow stable marriages.  Rather than finishing this text off in a few nights’ reading, I found that I could read only a chapter or so at a time.   It is a bit to close to home (physical location for us, rather than family history as we have moved here and our families come from other traditions).

My regular readers know that we are Come-Heres, a less that complementary phrase used by the Locals to describe those of us who do not have roots back before the the Civil War.  Come-Heres, though, have the possibility of being accepted if we come here with the attitude that we can learn from he Locals and become part of their community.  Otherwise, you will become Weekenders, who live in isolated communities and interact with he Locals only as masters to servants.

Vance on the other hand, chronicles his life as a Local in an insulated Kentucky community.  Early on, his family leaves that location to move to a town in Ohio.  However, Vance later realizes that the “hillbillies” that they are just moved to an expatriate hillbilly community, insulated from the middle-class, suburban community of Ohioans.  His story is about how he might have not progressed beyond the passions, violence, broken homes, and drug addictions which are part of hillbilly life.

His story, published in 2016, is also about how he and some others did come to realize that they did not want to become another generations of hillbillies, while not completely rejecting his history, culture, or family.  I will leave that for you to read and contemplate.

We have go in the opposite direction for this discussion.  We grew up in middle-class families, with father’s who were college educated salesmen and engineers, and mother who reared children while running the church activities, teaching children, and traveling the world, and pursuing work interests.  Through a series of circumstances, opportunities, and choices that we made the move to rural West Virginia.  Upon that move, my sister-in-law astutely proclaimed that if we made this move, we would become “more eccentric” than we already were.  I believe that eccentricity, and its accentuation have allowed us to integrate into the hillbilly community (that is a group of people rather than a geographical place) in which we live.

Certainly, we have seen plenty of the pain of the back-hallow culture: fingers cut off in log splitting mishaps and limbs mangled in tractor roll-overs, marriages and divorces peppered with intense love-hate relationships, children essentially abandoned by drug addicted or imprisoned parents, extended families, church members, and teachers taking-in and caring for those children, guns drawn on neighbors in heated arguments, doctors arrested for over-prescribing pain medications (after 5 patients died from overdoses) and the local pharmacy closed because of how many opiate medication prescriptions were sold (from numbers give in the local paper, I calculated that every adult and child in the county would have had to take 56 Oxycontin per year), neighbors who have let their home deteriorate before the moved away leaving the bank to sell the derelict property in foreclosure, and sadly several neighbors who shot themselves when life offered no better options (in their view)… do I need to chronicle more?

Vance, in addition to telling personal experiences, weaves academic information into his text about the very scenes which we have viewed in what I what I call in morbid humor “As  Our Subdivision Turns”, the soap opera of living the Appalachian culture.

“I tried to go to a counselor, but it was just too weird.  Talking to some stranger about my feelings made me want to vomit.  I did go to the library, and learned that behavior I considered commonplace was the subject of pretty intense academic study.  Psychologists call the everyday occurrence of my and Linsay’s (his sister) life “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs.  ACEs are traumatic childhood events, and their consequence reach far into adulthood.  The trauma need not be physical.  The following events or feelings are some of the most common ACEs:

  • being sworn at, insulted, or humiliated by parents
  • being pushed, grabbed, or having something thrown at you
  • feeling that your family didn’t support each other
  • having parents who were separated or divorced
  • living with an alcoholic or drug user
  • living with someone who was depressed or attempted suicide
  • watching a loved one be physically abused”

A questions which Vance addresses numerous times is what is the origin of the generational cycle:

“How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children.”

And the corollary questions of whether we, as individuals, social units, and government programs, can or should do anything to try to change the course of a hillbilly’s life:

“A good friend, who worked for a time in the Whitehouse (remember this was published in 2016 before the present administration!) and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, “The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things.  They’ll always be around.  But maybe you can put your thumb not the scale a little for the people at the margins.”

I reflect back on the thumbs that we have placed to leverage a few of our neighbors and friends: helping with wound-care in our home for the boy who had his fingers re-attached after the log-splitter incident; helping out the FFA students with their projects and purchasing their hams, bacons, and livestock at fund-raisers; walking a mile in snow-shoes to feed our neighbor’s calves when an early October storm closed the roads with over 2 feet of snow; filling pot-holes and cleaning ditches to keep dirt roads from eroding; finding handyman work for local farmers and their high school age sons; paying neighbor’s electrical bills before the electric company cut off their power, then accepting meat and hay as payment…

And, for this we have seen, even in tragic situations, how our thumbs have tipped the scales a bit: the FFA students who have gone on to college and graduated (rather than ending up in jail); the boy down the street who used to tear my wood pile apart to find snakes rather than move the wood to the shed as I was paying him for, now holds a full time job as the maintenance man at the local nursing home;  the students whom have invited us to their weddings and who are still married and rearing children; all the gardening and canning knowledge that we have benefitted from over the years; and, just the other day when I waved at a red truck, it pulled into the driveway with the father of the neighbor who shot himself a year ago… I had a chance to catch up and ask him how he was doing.  I could not bring his son back, but I could let him know that his son’s legacy was strong in these hills and valleys.

The point is not to erase hillbilly culture, but by becoming part of it, to hold onto the best parts of rural life.

About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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10 Responses to From the Bookshelf: Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance

  1. KerryCan says:

    I found Vance’s book utterly fascinating. This region of upstate New York has more than a few hillbilly tendencies and the problems associated with rural poverty so I could relate a bit. Your own experiences are enlightening, too–not easy to be accepted in that world but you’ve done your part!

  2. Lavinia Ross says:

    My father’s people are from rural eastern Kentucky. Although I wasn’t born down there, I heard many stories of life in that region, back in that time. This sounds like a good book.

    Enjoyed your post, Oscar, especially the last line which sums it up.

  3. cindy knoke says:

    I read this when it first came out and found it powerful.

  4. Interesting post. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve heard quite a bit about it, which included a fair amount of criticism about the conservatism of the author. Here is my take on personal responsibility. I come from a poor working-class family. (Disclosure: My father did work his way out of poverty. Such a thing was possible when he was a young adult in the early 1960s). In addition, being Franco-American and being Catholic made us second-class citizens in Maine. So I know more than a little about what if feels like to be looked down on just because of your roots. However, here is the point I want to make. At a young age, I fell in love with literature and am now a writer. My nephew has wonderful visual sense and teaches art. One of my daughters works in publishing. The other works at a college in administration. Are we all freaks of nature, totally divorced from a long line of folks who didn’t care about books, art, and college? I don’t think so. Rather, we all had opportunities that those who came before us didn’t have. For my father, going to college out of high school was as likely as going to the moon. And the further back you go, what you get is work, work, work and not much time or money for anything else. As a baby boomer, I was born during a prosperous time, where going to college was not out of reach for someone coming from a working-class family. Ditto for my daughters and my nephew, who came from middle-class families. But what if we had been born 100 years ago? Or 150 years ago? What would we be doing? It seems to me that the circumstances we are born into makes a tremendous difference as to whom we become. Sure, some few people will make it no matter what, and some people born into privilege will flop. But they are outliers. Anyway, my two cents. And I will add the cherry on the sundae by stating that I firmly believe that government can make a big difference in helping people realize their potential.

  5. BGCT2VA says:

    I read Vance’s book when it first came out. Like many that grew up with poverty and violence it was a love / hate relationship with family and friends. What struck me was the overwhelming devastation caused by drug abuse. And this is true whether it’s in Appalachia or the tawny burbs of Metro NYC. My take-away: There but for the Grace of God…

  6. Thomas Dyer says:

    It is heartening, but not at all surprising, to hear about the interactions and positive connections you and your neighbors are having.

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