The world of hillbillies and hollers is one so many of us only experience in TV shows or movies, but J.D Vance brings it into reality with his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The moving, funny, poignant story that Vance weaves tells of his own family, a unique group of people whose story is part of a much larger American picture.
Vance makes it clear from the first page that this is not just his family’s story, but many families. His intent in sharing the stories of hisgrandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, his family, or his own experiences, is to illustrate the hardships that are faced by a population of people in the United States that largely go unnoticed, or if they are noticed, it’s not for good reasons.
Originally from the small Kentucky town of Jackson, the Vance’s are a pretty typical family; some crazy family members, their own family traditions, and an undying loyalty to each other. Vance’s Mamaw and Papaw took a risk by moving from Jackson to Middletown, Ohio to seek their idea of the American Dream and a better life for their family. Vance himself grows up in Middletown, but goes back to visit his family in the holler.
The majority of the book takes place in Middletown, where we watch as Vance grows up. His mother, going through many boyfriends throughout the course of Vance’s life, is a very memorable character. Personal demons is a central theme throughout Vance’s narrative, and his mother has many. Regardless of if his mother is yelling at him in the car, or having a particularly good day, his Mamaw and Papaw are always only a few blocks away, ready to offer some of that hillbilly toughness or just a hot meal. The love Vance feels for both of them emanates from the pages from the very beginning.
It is through Mamaw and Papaw, however, that the true reason behind the narrative comes through. Coming to Ohio as Kentucky Transplants, Papaw works for Armco, and Mamaw never loses her hard-headed, loving, personality. At one point Vance writes, “Poverty is a family tradition,” and therein lies the core of the story. Vance paints a picture of an America that does not do its best for the people that they should be taking care of. But he also paints a picture of a people who cannot, largely, get out of the endless cycle of poverty in which they were born into. The balance between the stories of Vance’s family, and the questions that he raises is what create this memorable narrative.
For much of the narrative, Vance himself struggles with his identity, where he belongs in the world, and ultimately, whether or not he will be able to get out of the poverty cycle and make the most of his potential like his Mamaw wanted. A four year stint in the Marines where he served in Iraq, as well as graduating from Ohio State University and Yale Law School, land Vance in a Silicon Valley investment firm, proving that there is a way out of the cycle.
But Vance makes clear the point that his grandparents did everything they could to better him, with Mamaw keeping on him about his grades, and Papaw helping with math problems. However, some kids aren’t so lucky. If anything, Hillbilly Elegy’s intent is to bring awareness to those kids. The kids whose parents take advantage of food stamps, or who drink Mountain Dew at a young age. Those kids who drop out of school because no one pushes them, or they get pregnant, or any other numerous reasons. Those kids who get stuck in dead-end jobs in failing towns like Middletown. It seems that Vance wrote this for them.
It’s Vance’s truthful, honest voice that makes that point clear. And his first-hand experience with the issue is all the more reason to respect him as a writer. He takes the issue of the white lower class, and instead of spewing numbers at you, he tells the story of the time his Mamaw’s brothers went after a man who disrespected her. Or the numerous times he and his sister were introduced to their new stepfather, all of whom would be gone within a couple of months. He makes you remember, whether it’s the person or the story, you remember who these people are, and how, so often, they are forgotten. And Vance ingeniously weaves in facts and figures between all of the stories, so as to pound his argument even further into your head.
Vance may criticize pieces of his culture, of the hillbilly culture, but the argument can be made that he is in fact criticizing a much larger culture. One that allows for these people to be forgotten or ignored. And in the wake of a tumultuous election season, Vance’s words could be so beneficial to the policy and change makers in our country.
That may be the greatest beauty of Vance’s memoir. It’s almost as if he’s the one person who will finally stand up to the bully (of which he does in the book, at the prompting of Mamaw). Finally the voices that aren’t always heard can be through the educated, promising view of Vance himself. And he can shed light on the darkened hollers and dusty towns that America has deemed too dirty or tarnished to care about. He sheds light on the despair that people feel there.
Hillbilly Elegy is a book that’s not to be ignored. At a time when the need to understand each other is great, Vance writes a truthful, touching account of a culture that is truly in crisis and needs the love and care that Vance himself received from his family. And yes, I think Mamaw would be proud.