Ever since Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report called “The Negro Family,” white America has been fascinated by the study of black culture, always with an eye toward connecting high crime and poverty rates with perceived cultural pathologies. Fast forward to today, where the raucousness of the current election cycle and the growing irascibility of America’s latest populist movement, aka “the Cult of Trump,” has brought these issues to a head. Amidst all of this, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a quietly thoughtful, poignant look at life in the very places where the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee has garnered the strongest support. It provides a respite (and a much needed one, at that) from the shouting and the sheer noise of today’s political climate, with Vance choosing instead to adopt a tone of thoughtful reflection with a genuine desire for mutual understanding — almost a lost art in this soundbite-talking-head age. In a suggestion that is equal parts radical and common sense, Vance wants hillbilly culture to examine itself, instead.
But while the political timeliness of Hillbilly Elegy is undeniable, Vance truly shines when he takes us with him “down the holler” into an America we thought we knew — until we realized how little of it we truly understood. From the coal mines of Appalachia’s Jackson, Kentucky, to the hillbilly migration culminating in the heart of the Ohio Rust Belt, Vance is our insider guide to what, for some (especially those like me who grew up in an urban coastal town), is an entirely foreign, mysterious Scots Irish world. Vance forgives our assumptions, explains unfamiliar terms and customs, and shares the realities of his childhood — punctuated with delicious anecdotes that are at once humorous and heart breaking.
It is these details, in particular, that create a sense of a shared experience that crosses cultural, political and class lines. Hillbilly Elegy, at its core, is the story of a family and all the harsh, beautiful complexity that comes with it. Vance never shies away from the uglier details of his childhood — abuse, addiction, poverty. In fact, he seems to purposely highlight them, almost as if he wants the reader to understand that “It’s ok. These things happened, and they were not ok. But I am ok.” Vance never apologizes for the ugly, but, burnished with the patina of hindsight, one can almost appreciate the beauty — or at the very least, lessons — to be discerned in even the most gut-wrenching of experiences.
Vance shifts seamlessly between a bird’s eye, sociological assessment of the community that reared, frustrated, and ultimately formed him, and the raw emotion of a son’s search for love and stability. At one point, Vance recalls his mother, a longtime drug addict, in the midst of a prescription narcotic-induced psychotic episode that resulted in her appearing early one morning on the front lawn, barefoot, incoherently shouting. It is a traumatic scene on many levels, but nothing seems to capture the sheer futility and frustration more than Vance, barely a teenager at the time, having to silently acknowledge the gathered neighbors with a wave as “Mom” was carted away by the authorities.
If Hillbilly Elegy has a heart, its name is Bonnie Vance, or “Mamaw.” As the author’s maternal grandmother and the family matriach, Mamaw serves as a protector, teacher, and unabashed promoter (sometimes deliverer) of “Hillbilly Justice”. Vance’s adoration of Mamaw is contagious, and one comes away with the sense that perhaps she was the answer to Vance’s yearning for “some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.” Mamaw is crass, full of wisdom, vulgar, violent, loving, and the ultimate source of stability for Vance, which he credits as the impetus for him to pursue his education and life beyond expectations.
And yet, Hillbilly Elegy lives up to its title. It is a mourning. But not necessarily a mourning for “the good old days” or “how things used to be”. Vance seems to mourn the current state of hillbilly culture most of all. He describes a lack of purpose. A lack of community. A lack of spiritual identity. How certain hillbilly values, once revered, have had negative outcomes.
Fierce loyalty, for example, meant that families stuck by each other, no matter what. But it also meant that family members remained in abusive relationships, and that families often refused to confront their problems. Contentment with “what they had” meant that an entire generation could devote their professional lives, sense of purpose, and community identity to a single company — in this case, industrial steel. But it also translated to a fear of change, and an inability to adapt. When circumstances changed and the company slowed production or closed entirely, that very sense of purpose and identity went with it.
What Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy is an identity crisis centered in his home community, based on particular circumstances. But ultimately, it seems that the Appalachian identity crisis is, in fact, a microcosm of a much broader crisis on a national level. And we see the evidence of that crisis in the current political climate, fomented just as much by broader political machinations as by foolish individual choices — choices motivated, in most cases, by fear or misunderstanding, or both. Hillbilly Elegy lays out these choices, along with their accompanying fears, hopes and dreams in intimate, human form, and in this way, makes it clear that we all at some point confront fears of change and aspirations of stability, success, and love.
The world in Hillbilly Elegy is one we don’t necessarily like talking about. It’s the America we sometimes would rather try to cover up, ignore, write off, or disown. But in reality, it’s the one we need to understand.
But I don’t wanna go down in the deep dark mine
Let me feel the breezes and that warm sunshine
Oh, this feeling of the air, breathe it in and keep it there
Die a little every day in the deep dark mine
“Deep Dark Mine” ― The Hillbilly Gypsies