This is not a social studies book. It does not pretend to speak about the objectively real “facts on the ground.” Which means that while he tells up about the coal mines, he does not tell us (as McClatchy reported in 2015) that far more jobs have been created in renewable energy than have been lost in coal. That’s important (and Hillary might have done a bit better had she mentioned this during the campaign) but that’s not J.D.’s point. He is not describing some objective reality but a feeling and a memory. His book is part catharsis and part a plea with us to understand his people—the Appalachian hillbillies.
J.D. tells us about the bone- and soul-crushing poverty, the hopelessness, the anger and the blame-it-all on someone else laziness. He tells us about a Christian religion that asks nothing more of believers than that they believe themselves to be persecuted, be against gays and against abortion. He talks about addiction and theft and ever-changing husbands and child protective services and eating junk food all the time. And he tells us that he loves his people and is very, very proud of them. “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest people on this earth” he says at the end of the book with obvious pride and love. And yet. And yet he himself has not lived in Middletown, Ohio for quite a while now. (He lives in San Francisco these days.)
So why should we take his word for it? Didn’t he flee his people—more, didn’t he decide to settle in just about the most non-hillbilly place on earth? Yes, but that too is part of the story.
And it’s a personal story. It starts with Mamaw and Papaw (his grandparents) and their flight from their roots and subsequent tumultuous marriage which produced three children one of whom (J.D.’s Mom) didn’t beat the odds that were stacked against her. She endlessly cycled through husbands and became an addict (though she was smart enough to become a nurse). J.D. himself escapes thanks to his grandparents, his extended family and the Marine Corps. Those teach him that he can control his own life and instill in him a sense of optimism that is lacking in his angry, pessimistic, who-can-we-find-to-blame-for-our-bad-decisions home town. Or, as he puts it “For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider in Middletown. And what turned me into an alien was my optimism.”
But this is more than a personal story. Time and again, J.D. steps outside the story and gives us an analysis of what he thinks was going on. Sometimes I found those sections of the book jarring; occasionally I found myself chuckling a little when he presented what I consider to be a pretty straight-forward Democratic policy as a conservative one. (J.D. considers himself a conservative and has worked for Republicans.) But in the end, his message is pretty simple. The hillbillies are people. Respect them. They have a kind of common-sense, no-nonsense religion that they live by. Don’t force them into mega churches. Don’t try to fix everything either; just put your finger on the scale for the kids so that they can end their problems.
Because at the end of the day, hillbillies look after their own. Help them do that and you will have done a lot.
I truly liked this book and highly recommend it.
Product Name: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance
Offer price: $16.79 (Hardcover)
This is a touching, love-filled and very personal story about a very tough people with an unique culture and loads of problems. And a few suggestions of what other Americans can do to help that community overcome. While I highly recommend it, I would caution anyone buying it, thinking to give this to their teenager or something that there is a lot of swearing . Not gratuitous swearing; the author simply records how the folks around him talked. And they swore. A lot.