Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is described as one to read to understand the Trump win but, I was drawn to the book for a different reason.
I happened upon a TED Talk by the book’s author, J.D. Vance, about a year ago (The struggles of America’s forgotten working class) and when Vance mentioned he was from Middletown — located about 30 miles south of my home — I decided to read his book. Upon reading it, I discovered that as a grade school student he lived in Preble County (where I live) for a short time.
When I was about nine years old things began to unravel at home. Tired of Papaw’s presence and Mamaw’s constant ‘interference’ Mom and Bob decided to move to Preble County, a sparsely populated piece of Ohio farm country approximately thirty-five miles from Middletown.
The ‘experiment’ in Preble County ends, he says, when his mother overdoses and Vance returns to his grandparents’ home in Middletown.
The book has garnered good and negative reviews — and some reviews raise legitimate questions, but as a resident of the region with a similar background, I can relate with much of the story he tells, even if his characters are significantly more colorful than the ones I know. (The volume and type of cursing that exists in the book starkly contrasts with the language I heard growing up, even from the ‘unsaved,’ in my lineage.)
Vance’s lineage is from Jackson, Kentucky, mine is from Cumberland and Clinton County, Kentucky.
His tale is about a hardworking, tenacious and, quite often, self-destructing culture. As Vance unveils a landscape of poor, unrepresented Americans we see a group that does not escape its impoverished past. In southwest Ohio, where much of the story takes place, Kentuckians migrated here during the 1950s-1970s because union jobs offered a better standard of living. The company Vance’s grandfather worked for — AK Steel — actively recruited working-age men from Jackson County and the surrounding area, Vance reports.
By the time Vance is raised, though, the livable wage jobs are mostly gone as unions lost their foothold.
Dysfunction and Hard Times
So, the book is a tell-all about his dysfunctional family and the economic hardship they faced. The story is real and relatable since many people still live that way here.
My qualm with the book is the heavy-handed advise sprinkled throughout, that quite frankly, will not work. He is writing to ‘his people’ telling them government policies won’t change their situation, only they can. As the Jacobin review points out Vance overlooks the reality that systems already in place had, in many ways, locked this demographic into perpetual poverty. As Bob Hutton writes,
It’s a somewhat eccentric but fairly harmless idea. But at no point does Vance suggest that Kentucky and Ohio residents might benefit from higher wages, better health care, or a renewed labor movement… Hillbilly Elegy is misnamed. Elegies are poems dedicated to the dead. The American hillbilly isn’t dead; he’s just poor. The book should have been titled Hillbilly Reprimand, because Vance doesn’t want to mourn the hillbilly — he wants to make him a good worker.
What Is Versus What Could Be
I agree with Hutton. More than 200 years of history has proven this demographic has not found a way to achieve the American Dream. On the whole very few escape the poverty. Their communities have been filled, as Vance points out, with hardcore drug problems, addictions that are nearly impossible to shed (like meth and heroin), something he indirectly proves through the reoccurring theme of his mother’s failures and drug abuse.
As I am seeing in my own community, drug abuse will not resolve itself. It requires government intervention. As I write, in today’s local paper, out of the 21 indictments handed down by the Grand Jury in January, 15 were drug-related. We are a county of 40,000 residents.
‘Hillbillies’ also have few economic opportunities because their job options are often fast food or retail, so even those ‘hard-working’ individuals with multiple jobs will not achieve any upward mobility on those salaries. One 50-something man I recently met from the Middletown area, who had taken on seasonal work, noted that with his new job he was now working about 90 hours a week. Another woman I met stated the temporary job was her third source of income. They were doing their part — working hard — but they were hardly ‘living the dream.’
The real underlying story in Vance’s memoir is he was lucky to make it out. And it is his escape, that points to the real solution. He openly admits the upper echelon of our society have a different set of mores and values and, to become successful, Vance embodies them.
His story also reveals he is the exception, not the rule. Vance follows the tried-and-true method of upper mobility for most Appalachians. He leaves the region. In his case, he goes to the Silicon Valley where more economic opportunities exist. Most of ‘his people’ do not have that option. They will not become a Yale-educated attorney. Instead, their life and economic choices are significantly more bleak and they will be exploited by the existing economic conditions in their communities.
And, because of their poverty, many will die prematurely.
Rated 4 out of 5: In spite of his ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality, the book does provide a peak inside the mores and values of some Appalachian working poor.