J. C. Vance made it out. Raised in the hillbilly culture of Appalachia and a transplanted hillbilly culture in Ohio, Vance had the help of generous grandparents who force fed him education, and he eventually ended up at Ohio State and Yale Law School.
Hillbilly Elegy is part memoir and part sociology. The memoir sections feature fascinating characters–some tragic, some inspirational, and some “lunatic,” to use Vance’s own word. The more analytical sections reveal the author as a thoughtful conservative. Although some of his perspectives have what I consider unsavory implications, he makes his case based on credible personal experience and research, not reactionary posturing.
Please understand that when I write “hillbilly,” I do not mean it at all condescendingly. “Hillbilly” is a term that I’ve used to describe some of my own upbringing, and I mean it endearingly. While some of my many relatives live way off the grid and others have risen to the pinnacles of art, business, and other professions, most of us are arranged somewhere in between. What we have in common are ancestors who were simple folk with strengths sometimes used in productive ways but who also went off the rail from time to time with effects that rippled through the generations.
J. D. Vance puts a fine point on his examination of hillbilly culture: When families fail–and many hillbilly families fail–children often perpetuate the failure into the next generation. Drugs and alcohol abuse exacerbate the problems. Combine that with a stubborn refusal to accept help and an enthusiastic willingness to fight anyone over any perceived slight, and we have a culture that is its own worst enemy in many ways. But this fine point also shows the way out: Focus on the family structure and the children, one at a time if need be. Every child who finds her or his way out is more likely to be a productive citizen and a responsible family member in the next generation.
Reading this book during election season helps explain how the political perspectives of the hillbilly culture led to the creation of the candidacy of someone like Donald Trump. Hillbillies don’t like being told what to do, and they don’t like people who act like they’re better than everybody else. When hillbillies see someone who talks back to power in colorful, direct language, and then ridicules those they consider to be stuffed-shirt (and pantsuit) politicians, they see someone they can relate to. The issues matter less than the style, and they came out to vote, many for the first time, giving Trump their ballots while the multitude of other more traditional Republican candidates split the rest of the vote.
This book is a paradigm-shifter for me. I will see and understand some things differently because I read Hillbilly Elegy.