J.D.’s family may have lived in Ohio, but they never lost their Kentucky roots. Jackson County, Kentucky, was deep in the hills and hollers, where Scots-Irish descendants were poor, clannish, and tough. Farming was impossible, and mining was miserable, so when the steel mills up north were booming and the owners traveled down to Kentucky for cheap labor, often whole families and communities moved from their mountains into small mill towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, transplanting their culture along with their workers.
Vance’s mother was a drug addict who introduced her children to a new father figure every year, so J.D. and his siblings and half-siblings depended on Mamaw and Papaw for stability. His grandmother was the rock in a swirl of violence and addiction, a source of unconditional love and support. At the same time, she was tough as nails and cussed a blue streak. She thought it was hilarious when her littlest grandchildren imitated her horrible language. His uncles taught him what it was to be a man, which included treating women like trash. When other men treated the women in your own family poorly, though, there were no limits to the required revenge. Feuds were honorable, and education was for rich folks.
Breaking out of this insular world was difficult, but with his grandmother’s help, J.D. made it to college, and then even to Yale Law School. He saw that the people who had happy marriages and successful careers did not share his culture’s values or lifestyle, and he was thoughtful enough to want to figure out why. Hillbilly Elegy is an examination of how one group of people can destroy themselves, clinging to defensive habits that don’t translate well into the twenty-first century, being misunderstood by public policy makers and then hurt by the policies that are meant to help them, and escaping a hopeless life with alcohol and drug addiction, which only serve to exacerbate an already imbedded tendency to violence.
Merriam-Webster defines an elegy as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation, especially for one who is dead.” Vance hopes to bring this huge, white, working-class population out into public view, since it is largely misunderstood by the rest of the country. The Scots-Irish immigrant culture stretches from the hills of Alabama and Georgia, up through the Appalachians into New York state. They do not identify at all with the white elite in the Northeast and are often ignored by pollsters and other observers of American culture. Although they had originally been hardworking people, generations of despair have led them to dependence on government assistance, even when work is available.
I was confused at first by the term “Scots-Irish,” until my brother, who understands All Things Historical, explained that our Irish or Scottish ancestors are not part of this group. Our Irish Catholic great-grandfather moved from the Republic of Ireland to New England, where most of his fellow countrymen settled. Our Scottish grandmother did the same. The people of Appalachia are Protestants from Northern Ireland, originally settled there from Scotland, having an entirely different culture from the Catholics in the south of Ireland.
David and I lived in eastern Kentucky for five years or so, and the initial realization that the population is uniformly white is jarring to those of us who are used to living in the deep South. We were also startled by the iron-clad class division. Once you leave the small towns and travel east into the mountains, the poverty seems universal and unrelenting. Since the hollers are barely accessible, there is no infrastructure to help businesses to reach the rest of the country. As outsiders, we had friends among the missionaries who moved there to help the native people with economic development, and we were witness to a steady stream of politicians and activists who would put on their best folksy act during a photo op on a rickety front porch. Whether they truly cared about the people or only cared about their own careers is debatable. Nothing ever changed.
J.D. Vance is currently having an on-again/ off-again conversation about running for public office. He does have a unique perspective on many issues of the working class, such as welfare dependence, employment, health care, addiction, and education. Most of this book contains his fascinating memoir, but the last thirty or so pages present his conclusions about his culture, and even how his “outsider” wife has helped him to recognize and change his own childhood patterns. He has an important story for all Americans to hear.
I passed Hillbilly Elegy on to my husband when I was finished, and our library system has dozens of copies in every possible format that stay completely checked out. In the meantime, Ron Howard plans to direct a movie based on the book. Highly recommended.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.