Stars: 4 Stars
I did not grow up in the U.S.A. So, my first introduction to Hillbillies was through those lovable fictional transplants to California. I refer to the TV show – The Beverly Hillbillies. I never thought about hillbillies after that, till coming to America. Then it slowly began to sink in, that for whatever reason, hillbillies were not held in fond esteem by the rest of the country, and I couldn’t see why. One of the things about being an immigrant is that there are some cultural nuances that we just won’t get. For example, when it is generally agreed that stereotyping is harmful, why then is it not considered offensive to label some poor people as ‘white trash’. I have heard that term casually tossed around in pop-culture, while another word is delicately expressed as the ‘n-word’. There seems to be a double standard there that I don’t understand.
In his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance explores the complexity of his family roots; and in the process, gives us an insider’s scoop into the hillbilly culture – the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of it.
“Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology, and community and culture and faith.”
Though Vance proudly identifies as a hillbilly, in his case, it is more an identity of culture and ethos. His hillbilly grandparents had eloped as teenagers from the hills of eastern Kentucky to start their life together in a suburb of Ohio. His beloved grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, briefly enjoyed their share of the American dream, reaping the windfall of the industrial boom of the Fifties. However, they and their kin also exemplify self-destructive behaviors and attitudes that blight their chances of happiness and prosperity. As we see in Vance’s book, some of his family grow in awareness; and make conscious decisions to exercise better judgment, make better choices; simply, to live better. Because they’ve seen first-hand the alternative to that – living as their own worst enemy; no outsider can do to them what they do to themselves.
Despite his interest in sociology and his research, Vance does not write like an academic. I say that as a point in his favor. The statistics he cites, and the writers he references serve to anchor his personal narrative more securely. Because ultimately, it is his story that held my interest – the family lore; the grandparents who try to amend the mistakes of their youth by being the rock of their grandchildren’s life; the poignancy of a childhood held hostage by an unstable parent; and most importantly, the resolution that neither the odds stacked against him nor any possible inherited genetic traits would doom his destiny. I found that self-assertive optimism made this a remarkably ‘American’ book in every sense.