‘Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J. D. Vance


2016,  257 p.

I  put a hold on this book at the library months and months ago when there were about 60 people in line ahead of me, and finally it arrived.  It’s worth the wait.

J. D. Vance grew up in Middletown Ohio, but his cultural roots were in Jackson, Kentucky. “Middletown Ohio!”- it sounds like a Billy Joel song. Even his name, which is unexceptional at first glance, tells his story. ‘Jay Dot Dee Dot’ is what he called himself, but the names which the letters abbreviated changed, as did his surname, as his mother churned through a series of marriages that ended in failure. The real anchor in his life was his grandmother, Mamaw (pronounced Ma’am-aw), who along with her husband Papaw, made the trek northwest to join the steel-manufacturing workforce in Ohio in the post WWII boom. His grandparents had had a rocky marriage but hostilities had ebbed, and of  all their children, it was J.D.’s mother (Mom) who was probably the most troubled. She was a nurse, but fell in and out of addiction to prescription drugs, and bounced quickly from one marriage to another, dragging her children Lindsay and J.D. with her. It was only when J.D. finally settled with his grandmother Mamaw on a permanent basis that he had enough structure in his life to settle at school, eventually gaining entry to Yale Law School. It is from this vantage point – the kid who escaped – that he writes this book that makes sense of, but does not excuse, the hillbilly culture that is dying around him.

He writes of  a world of truly irrational behaviour.

We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads…We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake.  Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity – there’s nothing left over (p. 147)

Homes are a mess; family members scream at each other. They don’t study and don’t make their children study.

We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance- the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach. (p. 147)

And there we have The Donald, with his orange skin and long red tie, telling them exactly the same thing- that Obama shut the coal mines, and it’s all the fault of “Ji-na”. This book was embraced last year as the Trump phenomenon rolled on, and it is a political book in that it explains and gives coherence to political allegiances that seem self-defeating to Australians. As he explains, most Middletonians viewed Barak Obama with suspicion, and George W. Bush had few fans in 2008. Many loved Bill Clinton but many saw him as a symbol of moral decay, and Ronald Reagan was dead.  They loved the military and the space program.

Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighbourhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream- a steady wage. (p. 189)

His solutions? He doesn’t really have any, but he can see the problems, and he can draw policy lessons as a way of “putting a thumb” on the scales of life chances. “We can adjust how our social services systems treat families like mine” (p. 243) and the definition of a family can be expanded to include the grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles who are overlooked by child services.  “The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities” (p. 244). His schooling was adequate, he had low-interest schooling grants and never went hungry. Instead “the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn’t happen) at home…. Can you change this with a new law or program? Probably not. Some scales aren’t that amenable to the proverbial thumb”. (p. 246)

I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better. (p. 256)

This book is, in effect, a survivor story and an ethnographic report from an insider/outsider.  It reminded me a bit of Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words (1983), also about Appalaccian school children in two adjoining towns, Roadville and Trackton, and their use of language and its relationship with school success.  Vance is a Republican, and he remains angry at “welfare queens” amongst his own people.  However, this is not a call for more individualism or personal responsibility. It’s a shared cultural response, a choice taken as an extended family and community.  It can’t be imposed from outside, and even though he doesn’t mention Trump by name, a politician might capture the anger but will not be the solution.

It would be nice if one single book could offer a solution to the world’s ills. That’s not going to happen, and its not going to be this book.  But in terms of setting out a coherent, if unfamiliar worldview held by important voting-blocs in America, this is an instructive and fascinating report from the other side.

4 responses to “‘Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis’ by J. D. Vance

  1. Hi Janine, nice review. Have you read Joe Bageant’s similarly themed “Deer Hunting With Jesus” from 10 years earlier?

  2. Excellent review! I really enjoyed this book too.

  3. Roger Robertson

    I have a life story that would put this one to shame.

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