Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is an interesting book but really comes across as “too big for it’s britches” – a phrase that Vance attributes to his Scots-Irish hillbilly roots. The problem with the book is just that. He thinks this story is unique to those rust belt rednecks, just as he thinks they are the only ones that use that expression. It is a naive view of their uniqueness in the American white lower middle class.
He talks of redneck honor codes, laziness, hillbilly habits and dozens of other stereotypes. His age (31) could be partially to blame for lack of understanding that none of what he discusses is unique to the Kentucky transplants in Middletown, Ohio. It is standard fare for the rednecks, hillbilly, mountain folk, cedar pickers, dirt farmers or a hundred other segments of poor America.
The book reads as a badge of honor to his heritage in middle America but there is nothing at all unique about his kinfolk. I see the same things in the Piney Woods of East Texas, the swamps of Florida, the dust bowl and dozens of other regions in our country. I see it all over the country and in more than the lives of the poor white.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the book and I thank Vance for his tackling of some subjects that have been off-limits by many. He faces head on how redneck/hillbilly values and habits hurt them and short-changes their chances of success. He is quick to point out the hypocrisy of welfare recipients buying cigarettes and eating T-bone steak while he worked and wasn’t able to afford either.
It was at this point that Vance stopped talking about “his people” and focused on the political systems that conspired to create and extend these situations. His insight that the welfare state encourages the social plight of these people is dead-on. It is here that the book becomes more about what is wrong with our country but doesn’t give up on it being unique to his kin.
Hillbilly Elegy frequently shifts between Vance’s biography and his view on the world and his upbringing. Wrapped around his experiences, the conclusions he draws carry weight. His conclusion that the largest difference between Hillbillies and the well-to-do of the world, is access to and use of social connections is well founded.
Vance does a great job pointing out that an impulse to prepare for a conflict and “look” for someone to let you down is a very harmful result of growing up in this environment. Things like understanding, blowing off perceived slights and compassion toward others is a rarity, but positions people to actually succeed.
In the end how did J.D. Vance succeed when everything in his life situation seemed to be stacked against him? What is the cure for the ills of hillbilly and redneck upbringing? He offer no solution and agrees there isn’t one. What Vance does is show gratitude for the people and factors in his life that gave him his opportunities. In the end though, it was him being willing to accept help and having the drive to get ahead.
by Chris Doelle