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.