Full title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Intense memoir of J.D. Vance’s childhood and eventual rise. It reminded me of Angela’s Ashes except that instead of Ireland, it took place in Kentucky/Ohio and the drug of choice was prescription pills rather than alcohol. I was astonished that J.D. not only survived, but thrived. He credits his grandparents with saving his life, but a lot of different factors came together at the right time to propel him out of his dead end hometown. This is that story.
In his own words: “Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me. That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.” pg 8, ebook.
My favorite parts of this book were the crazy, hillbilly history of his grandparents. They reminded me a lot of my own grandfather, who was a hell raiser in his time too. In this passage, J.D.’s grandma (Mamaw) is teaching him how to take a punch to the face: “…when I asked her what it felt like to be punched in the head, she showed me. A swift blow, delivered by the meat of her hand, directly on my cheek. “That didn’t feel so bad, did it?”… This was one of her most important rules of fighting: Unless someone really knows how to hit, a punch in the face is no big deal.” pg 61, ebook. My grandpa discouraged any kind of physical fighting since I was a girl and this went against his thoughts about what was appropriate for females. But, he told me stories about when he fought as a child, and he said he used bricks instead of his fists because it “evened the odds- those boys were bigger than me and there were more of them”.
At heart though, my grandpa was a peaceful man, unlike Mamaw. His favorite show in his twilight years was Pawn Stars, Mamaw’s was The Sopranos: “In her old age, with limited mobility, Mamaw loved to watch TV. …her favorite show by far was the HBO mob story, The Sopranos. Looking back, it’s hardly surprising that a show about fiercely loyal, sometimes violent outsiders resonated with Mamaw. Change the names and dates, and the Italian Mafia starts to look a lot like the Hatfield-McCoy dispute back in Appalachia.” pg 116, ebook.
Throughout the family stories related in Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. weaves a fascinating examination of hillbilly culture: “It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” pg 124-125, ebook.
J.D. has many epiphanies in this book. Here’s one of my favorites: “… there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself- that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” pg 151, ebook.
And, as much as this book highlights the problems in hillbilly America, it is also a call to action through greater self knowledge and personal responsibility. J.D. asks some really tough questions: “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? How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” pg 195, ebook. I would say, with ourselves. All great change comes from within, at least, in my experience, I have found this to be true.
Some read alikes: A fictional work that examines some of the topics inHillbilly Elegy: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. A coming of age memoir under similar conditions: Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.
Thanks for reading!