J.D. Vance-Hillbilly Elegy

Themes Explored: nonfiction, autobiography, upward mobility, poverty, middle class, the Rust Belt, rural America, memoir, biography, opioid crisis, narcotics, alcoholism, bankruptcy, welfare, politics, work ethic, the Marine Corps, semper fidelis, Law School, Yale, hillbilly, Appalachia, blue collar jobs, steel industry, manufacturing

Synopsis:  J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family.

Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. (Adapted from Goodreads)


Review: Due to my parents’ education and professional choices, my childhood was a solidly middle class lifestyle. We have always lived in safe neighborhoods with paved streets, low crime, and plenty of educational and recreational resources at our disposal. Overall, my childhood was idyllic. Today, I live in a nice area and can walk outside late at night and know nothing terrible will happen.

Not everyone, even in America, can say the same.

Outside of the urban areas, America houses a vast array of rural communities. Since the end of the steel era, many industrial and manufacturing towns struggled to provide an industry for the local workers. A couple of decades ago, many people could graduate high school and walk immediately into a well-paying blue-collar job. These professions provided stable employment, loads of benefits, retirement pensions, and enough take home pay for people to buy houses, nice cars, and take a modest vacation. A middle class lifestyle was attainable without obtaining a college degree.

Then the steel and manufacturing industries dried up and moved overseas. Almost overnight an entire group of people saw their chances of a middle class lifestyle disappear. Due to numerous circumstances-education, money, lack of knowledge, location-people struggled to reinvent themselves or pursue opportunities outside of their dying towns. The government stepped in and started dispersing welfare checks and offering subsidized housing.

A few years ago, a new terror gripped these rural towns: opioids.  Nothing robs an individual of choice and opportunity like drugs. This destructive nirvana quickly engulfed many desperate people and transformed struggling towns into ghettos filled with a permanently baked population.

Against this backdrop, a young J.D. Vance grew into adulthood. His parents separated when he was young and his mother soon developed a lifelong drug habit. Vance’s father went away, found religion, and remarried. Vance grew up bouncing around with his unreliable mother. Only his grandparents provided a sense of stability.

His grandfather had worked for a local manufacturing plant until it folded. While his grandparents were dirt poor, they had their pride. They never relied on government charity, kept their house and yard clean, and tried to steer their young grandson in a better direction.

 Poverty was the family tradition. Vance’s ancestors came from a long line of sharecroppers, coal miners, machinists, and millworkers. All low-paying, body-destroying occupations that have nearly vanished over the years due to outsourcing and automation.

A lot of his cousins, neighbors, extended relatives, and other members of the community practiced learned poverty. They spent their way into bankruptcy by purchasing giant television, iPads, and smartphones. The children wear nice clothes due to an over reliance on high-interest credit cards and payday loans. Homes are refinanced for more spending money. When the bills catch up with everyone, they declare bankruptcy and skip the neighborhood, often leaving the houses full of garbage. Since everyone does this, no one questions the system and the cycle continues into perpetuity.

J.D. grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a rotting steel town filled with people who emigrated from Kentucky.  Mamaw and Papaw — his maternal grandparents — settled in Middletown shortly after World War II in search of a better life. While Mamaw and Papaw managed to achieve a lower middle-class life, they never quite managed to shed their Appalachian values and habits. Some habits were positive, like loyalty and patriotism. However, the negative habits, like domestic violence and verbal abuse, did not lead to a harmonious family life.

Papaw came home drunk most nights while Mamaw, “a violent nondrunk,” forever taunted him. This domestic subterfuge took the form of Mamaw serving her husband plates of garbage for dinner or dousing him with gasoline. Unsurprisingly, this destructive behavior negatively affected their children. J.D.’s mother mastered the art of instability: violent, feckless, prone to hysteria, and sexual promiscuity.  A long stint in rehab did nothing to curb a budding addiction to prescription narcotics, she eventually took up heroin. Over the course of her life, she went through numerous boyfriends and at least five husbands. Her one redeeming factor was a love of reading and she made sure to pass this passion on to her son.

With such a mother, JD seemed destined to follow a similar path of self-destruction. However, JD’s grandparents eventually reconciled and became his unofficial guardians. Mamaw took it upon herself to make sure JD rose above his circumstances.  She comes across as foul-mouthed and overflowing with tough love. In a town where most children never graduate high school, she made sure JD finished.

 Upon graduation, JD enlisted in the Marine Corps. The Marines taught JD how to balance a checkbook, make a budget, eat proper nutrition, take pride in his appearance, and how to function in society outside of Middletown. Unlike his childhood, his young adulthood revolved around structure and planning for the future. For this first time in his life, JD felt a glimmer of hope that his life would turn out better than those of his peers. After his four years in the Marines, JD went on to graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School, the first in his family to earn a Bachelor’s Degree and finish graduate school.

 Hillbilly Elegy paints a picture of a culture in crisis. Since the main employers left town-mainly blue collar jobs-people filled the void with drugs. Vance recounts many personal stories, memories which are better experienced on the page than in real life. A running theme underlying all his anecdotes is the question: How much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortunes?

Vance deeply believes in personal responsibility and a strong work ethic. He takes umbrage with an old school acquaintance who quit his job because he hated waking up early, only to blame the “Obama economy” for lack of work. A former co-worker at a tile warehouse would miss work multiple times a week due to lack of interest in his (well paying) job, even though his girlfriend was pregnant.

Everyone is a product of their upbringing. Parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors, and the community at large influences how children view the world. Surround someone with a lot of work shy complainers and the odd are the child will grow up into a work shy complainer. Psychologists subscribe to the notion that each person is a conglomeration of the five people they interact with the most. When you grow up in a poor home with bad role models, your chances of succeeding go way down. Yet, anyone who tries hard enough can rise above their circumstances and form a better life.

Hillbilly Elegy combines both autobiography and an exploration of some of the poorest and least socially cohesive areas in the United States. At the end of the day, regardless of how you grew up, you have the power to forge a new life for yourself. Be it through education or the military, opportunities exist to break a generations long cycle of poverty and dysfunction.

Hillbilly Elegy, Harper, 2016, ISBN: 9780062300546 

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