“Hillbilly Elegy”: A Memoir of a Family and Culture

Reading author J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” is like a Sunday afternoon drive from my home in Huntington, West Virginia, to my hometown of Harts – 70 miles and a world away. Vance paints portraits of men and women who populate my memories. How could it not be so? After all, the author is a distant cousin, as both of us are related to the Hatfield clan of feud fame.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is an eloquent epitaph for a dying culture – one that at one time formed a vital core of American society. It is also a warning to the broader American culture.

“The number of working-class whites in high-poverty neighborhoods is growing. In 1970, 25 percent of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10 percent. In 2000, that number was 40 percent. It’s almost certainly even higher today. n other words, bad neighborhoods no longer plague only urban ghettos; the bad neighborhoods have spread to the suburbs.”

Vance’s book came out shortly before the November 2016 election and many people have looked to it for answers as to why Americans voted for Donald Trump.

At its most basic level, however, “Hillbilly Elegy” is a story of hope – of transcendence. Vance was born poor in the rapidly decaying rust-belt Ohio town of Middletown to a family of economic migrants from eastern Kentucky. He describes a childhood devoid of hope – one in which his father disappeared and his drug-addled mother abandoned him after subjecting him to her spiral of self-destruction. His salvation came in the form of his grandparents. Despite their own dysfunction, they loved J.D. and helped him rise above the limits they imposed on themselves.

Vance’s family was among those who settled the hill country of eastern Kentucky in the 18th and 19th centuries. They lived in isolation for 200 years, but during the Depression many came out of the mountains looking for jobs in northern factories. The Vances were part of a second postwar wave of Appalachian migrants. That brought them to Middletown, Ohio, a place that had grown up around a giant steel mill. Vance’s “Papaw” built a good life as a worker there, but then the business – and the town that depended on it – began dying as heavy industry moved to East Asia.

Vance describes “learned helplessness” – the abiding sense that nothing you do matters and that you can’t change your fate, which is decided by other people in some nameless, faceless building somewhere, or by a Calvinistic God who determines your fate before you are even born.