A “Hillbilly” Reacts to “Hillbilly Elegy”

A Review of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
I bought this book as soon as it came out. I wanted to love it. Finally, I hoped, someone would write about contemporary Appalachian culture in a positive light.

This book was not about life in Appalachia. This book was about white poverty among people in small towns in the Midwest, many of whom are descended from Appalachia migrants. The experiences of Vance growing up poor were well worth reading, but I expected much more reflection and analysis on “Hillbilly” culture. There was the beginnings of a good discussion on upward mobility (around page 200), and I had hoped this would be the crux of the book.

My own parents grew up in grinding poverty in Appalachia, and I married the son of an investment banker. The difference in lifestyles and attitudes between my parents’ early lives and my adult life were jarring and often difficult to reconcile. My life as a wealthy person in Appalachia is light years away from that of poor Appalachian people living less than a mile away. Yet we do still have the same “culture” in many ways. I had hoped this book would address this culture, including the love of the land, the rich musical heritage, the pride in Cherokee heritage most of us have, and the extraordinary generosity of people in this region. I had also hoped a book such as this would have covered the vast changes in this region in the past fifty or so years.

This idea for this book was a great concept, but it focused too much on the author’s personal story – and that story took place among exiled mountain people in the Midwest, not in Appalachia itself. The focus on violence in this book was real for this author, but I wish he had been able to see this problem in context and understand that hair trigger temper tantrums are, in this region, more a symptom of class, rather than pervasive among everyone in this region. It only told part of the story of the people in this region.

I hope someone will eventually write about contemporary culture in Appalachia in a way that does justice to the subject.  It grieves me that in America, it is still considered acceptable to ridicule “hillbillies” and “rednecks.”  I hope at some point, this will end.

 

 

3 thoughts on “A “Hillbilly” Reacts to “Hillbilly Elegy”

  1. I read this a couple of weeks ago also…well, actually listened to it on Audiobooks. At any rate, I agree it had a few good points, but does not reflect the core values of most Appalachians, rich or poor. I thought it was noteworthy to consider the little recognized advantages of knowing what to wear to an interview, networking, etc. that my kids seem to take for granted.

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  2. you have to be born poor as dirt get out of the dirt yourself and still be able to have a sense of humor, lot of faith, good parent, aand respect what you have to what you did not. you have see the beauty in the dirt like the fog lifting gently and swirling up thru the hollers, the fun of a one room school, flour sack dresses, and oil LAMPS. the greatest gift i got was learning to read and Grimm’s fairy tales made me survive with hope.

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  3. I agree with you assessment that The book really isn’t about hillbilly culture and such a book could be a lovely thing. I still think the book is important, and although Vance hints at a yearning for the hillbilly culture he had brief acquaintance with in his youth, It seems clear, and he does not deny it, that this was only a very small part of his experience. It is unfortunate that he does not write about the positive aspects of that culture. What he does write about is a crisis that affects a significant enough group of poor white people that it should be worrisome. The fact that the story is personal and at times bitter and raw, is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Whether or not it will make any difference in the long run is anyone’s guess.

    As to Vance’s self identification as a hillbilly, I am certain that this reflects his experience and perhaps the awareness of a child. There is no evidence I this book that he had examined this culture or his experience of it as an adult, nor does he claim to do so. The media has been very misleading on this subject and it is a shame the media itself, more than the book, promotes a narrow and false impression of this culture.

    Liked by 1 person

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