I ordered a copy of Hillbilly Elegy almost as soon as it was published, but it laid on my side table for a long time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was emotionally up to reading it. From the reviews I had seen, I knew that the story told by its author, J.D. Vance, was very similar to my own story, and there’s lots about that story that is painful. But last weekend I decided to read it while flying back and forth to Columbus, Ohio (where Vance attended school at THE Ohio State), and I am glad that I did. It was tough to read – at many points I nearly burst into tears (which would have been awkward for the people sitting next to me on the plane!). But it was also cathartic. In this post I want to talk about the book, and about my own experience, and about the experience of the band of people I proudly lay claim to as my own – hillbillies.
J.D. Vance was born in Jackson, KY, the county seat of Breathitt County (or as we Kentuckians call it, “Bloody Breathitt”). His family had to make the choice of whether to stay in the hills to try to scratch out a living or move north to find work, and like many hillbillies, his people moved north to Ohio, finding good work in Middletown. Vance’s mother was in and out of many relationships, so the real stability in his life was provided by his grandparents, known to the family as “Mamaw and Papaw.” When drug addiction finally overwhelmed his mom, Vance moved in with his Mamaw, whom he credits for saving his life.
Vance uses the experience of his own family as a paradigm to describe the challenges facing hillbillies in general, and the statistical realities bear out the validity of this approach. Hillbilly culture is being decimated by drug addiction, by broken marriages and fatherless children, by failing schools, by lack of economic opportunity and – even worse – by a vanishing sense of personal responsibility. As Vance puts it,
There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself (p. 7).
For all of these reasons and more, hillbilly culture is the most pessimistic subculture in American society. Blacks and hispanics are more optimistic for the future of their children than are whites. And, as Vance frequently notes, hillbillies are often just plain mean.
But these are Vance’s people, and they are mine. My family came from Pike County, Kentucky – the easternmost county in the state. They lived on Joe’s Creek, an area just a little north of Pikeville. My grandparents were known as “Granny and Pop,” and like Vance’s family, they left the hills in search of work. And like his family, they found it in Ohio (in Dayton, just a few miles from Middletown). Later they lived in northern KY across the river from Cincinnati, and they finally settled in central Kentucky – in Winchester – where I was born and raised.
We hillbillies trace our roots back to Scotland and Ireland, to the clans that lived in the hills of the British Isles. The “clan” was the extended family, and it was the focal point of loyalty. Disputes often broke out between clans and were settled violently (the precursor to the feuding culture of us hillbillies). At its best, clan culture demanded great courage as well as devotion to the honor of the family. At its worst, it led to suspicion and distrust of anyone outside the clan.
The Scots-Irish migrated to America and settled in the Appalachian Mountains that resembled their homeland. They really had no choice – their wealthier and better established English counterparts had already claimed the lucrative land on the coast. This raises an important point. There is no such thing as a monolithic “white” experience. Even among people as closely related as the English and Scots-Irish there are dramatic differences. This is vividly displayed in the distinction between the mountain culture of eastern Kentucky and the horse culture of central Kentucky. The plantation south was very different from Appalachia (for a detailed look at the Scots-Irish, check out Jim Webb’s Born Fighting).
The Scots-Irish brought with them their penchant for violence. In its more noble manifestation this produced legions of hillbillies who volunteered to fight for the country (it’s why Tennessee – another hillbilly stronghold – is known as the “Volunteer State”). My Pop fought in World War 2, and my two uncles were career military men. But in its worst forms, this culture of violence led to blood feuds (my family is related to the McCoys from the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud), to verbal and physical abuse in the home, to hair-trigger tempers that will come to blows in an instant.
Vance frequently talks about how “mean” his people could be, especially his Mamaw. His Papaw came home drunk a lot, so his Mamaw warned him that the next time this happened, she would kill him.
A week later, he came home drunk again and fell asleep on the couch. Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their eleven-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only mild burns (pp 43-44).
I have often joked with my wife that I was raised by the “two meanest hillbilly women who ever lived.” But I think Vance’s Mamaw takes the prize! My Mom and Granny could be mean – but they had to be. They had tough lives. My Pop had a drinking problem just like Vance’s Papaw. Granny had to be tough to keep the household going. One of my aunts told me she remembered a night when Pop came home so drunk he literally crawled to the front door, but Granny refused to let him in. Was that mean? Maybe. But Granny was determined to protect her family (and at least she didn’t set him on fire!).
Pop never drank in front of me, but every once in a while I would find his whiskey bottle. Once, I snuck a drink of what I thought was Pop’s lemonade – it turned out to be lemonade spiked with Jack Daniels. That’s probably why I was never tempted to drink again! Like Vance’s Papaw, my Pop decided to stop drinking, and he did – cold turkey. I was so proud of him the day I saw him go forward at church to confess his problem and ask for prayers. I was only in the 8th grade at the time, and as I look back on what Pop did, my admiration for what he did grows more and more.
Mom at her desk as secretary to the administrator at our local hospital
The biggest difference between my story and Vance’s has to do with our mothers. His became addicted to painkillers, and throughout her life went through many marriages that crumbled due to her personal instability. My Mom was never married, and while she dated a couple of guys during my childhood, she shielded me from any romantic drama she may have experienced. And my Mom was a hard worker, holding two jobs for most of my growing up years. After I was born she started working at the local hospital, working her way up from being a cashier in the business office to being the administrative secretary – not too bad a for a woman with just a high school diploma! At nights she worked part-time jobs, as a clerk at a local liquor store, in the concession stand at our drive-in (where I first saw Star Wars!), and cleaning offices.
She was able to do this because we lived with her parents and Granny looked after me during the day. It is a great testimony to how stable and loving my home life was that it was several years before I realized that I didn’t have a dad like other kids did (or maybe just evidence of how slow I am!). And even then it was only when one of the neighbors told their son to call me an “illegitimate bastard” that I realized that some people didn’t like me because I didn’t have a father.
Stories like mine and Vance’s are all-too common among hillbillies, children in single-parent homes raised by their grandparents, facing environments in which alcohol and drugs are abundant. What many people don’t realize is how similar these dynamics are to what’s facing African-Americans. People from outside of these two cultures would never imagine that blacks in inner city Detroit or Chicago have anything in common with hillbillies on Joe’s Creek or in “Bloody Breathitt,” but the statistics show that the plights of each community are very similar. Vance mentions how much a book he read in high school by William Julius Wilson called The Truly Disadvantaged resonated with him, even though
he wasn’t writing about the hillbilly transplants from Appalachia – he was writing about black people in the inner cities (p. 144).
This reality is part of the reason the current fixation on “identity politics” infuriates me so much. Those who obsess over “white privilege” assume that the experience of white people is one-dimensional, which is absurd. And they also assume that white people cannot understand or empathize with what black Americans have faced. It is true that my people never encountered racism, slavery, and Jim Crow laws. But hillbilly people do know the sting of social stigma and ethnic prejudice. And due to economic realities, hillbillies face the same downward pressures on upward mobility that many African-Americans face.
When Granny and Pop moved to Winchester, the only place they could afford to live at first was an apartment house on Broadway. This was the part of Winchester where the “white section” ended and the “black section” began. Across the street lived a black family, led by its matriarch, Ms. Gracie. She and Granny became lifelong friends. Socially and economically, we had far more in common with Mrs. Gracie and her people than we did with the folks who lived in the big houses on Boone Avenue and were members of the local country club. This reflects an observation noted in another book Vance cites, Appalachian Odyssey:
It was not simply that the Appalachian migrants, as rural strangers “out of place” in the city, were upsetting to Midwestern, urban whites. Rather, these migrants disrupted a broad set of assumptions held by northern whites about how white people appeared, spoke, and behaved…Ostensibly, they were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economic, political, and social power in local and national arenas. But hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit (cited on p. 31).
This is why I chafe at the talk of “white privilege” and “identity politics.” “White privilege” for my band of hillbillies was digging for coins to scrape up enough money to buy bread and baloney. It was Granny breaking down her knees from years of scrubbing the floors of families she worked for to supplement Pop’s meager income. It was my Mom working two jobs. And it was doing this in the same neighborhood as black families facing a similar set of challenges. Folks from the hills and the hood have a lot more in common than the establishment realizes (a truth humorously and beautifully brought home by this “Black Jeopardy” skit on Saturday Night Live).
The most important part of Vance’s book is his reflection on why his story turned out so differently from the statistical expectations. Vance is a Yale law grad and a successful investor. How did that happen to a hillbilly from Breathitt County? As Vance reflects on all the pieces that fell into place for him, I can’t help but think of my own life:
When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance. There was my grandparents’ constant presence. . . Even with her faults, Mom instilled in me a lifelong love of education and learning. My sister always protected me. . . There were teachers, distant relatives, and friends (p. 239).
My Mom and Pop were both voracious readers (and Pop never made it past elementary school). Granny loved crossword puzzles and word jumbles, and one of my treasured possessions is a notebook filled with handwritten notes she took in Bible class at church. Her father, my great-grandad “Pa Syck,” was a school teacher back in Pike County. So I was given a love for learning by my family, like Vance.
But the most important thing Vance and I were given was the belief that our choices matter. Lots of hillbillies feel trapped, that the deck is so stacked against them that it doesn’t make any difference what they do. They are hopeless, content to blame their problems on Bush or Obama or the establishment or the Chinese or…. It is what Vance refers to as “learned helplessness” (p. 163). But his Mamaw convinced him that even though life is unfair, and even though the rich and powerful have connections and advantages that people like us do not, that it is still possible to be successful, that his choices really mattered, and that he could make a better life.
My Mom, Granny, and Pop all believed the same thing about me. And I was blessed with many people in my life – teachers, neighbors, the preacher at my church – who told me the same thing. I know how fortunate I am that my story turned out differently than it does for most kids in my circumstances.
Vance’s family, like most hillbillies, was not big on organized religion. His Mamaw was a faithful Bible reader, but she had the same distrust of churches and preachers that lots of people from the hills share. As Vance points out, while hillbillies may live in the “Bible belt,” regular church attendance is actually very low (p. 93). This is another major difference in our stories. While my Mom was unfaithful to the Lord for many years, my grandparents were regular church attendees, and even when they didn’t want to go to Sunday school, they would make sure I got there. And that leads me to my final observation about the book.
The chief problem with hillbilly culture at its worst is its spiritual poverty, its allergy to accountability and its impulse toward isolation. Christ calls us to accept responsibility for our choices, to confront our faults, and to follow Him. And in the church, Christ gives us an extended family, a rich support system that provides accountability and encouragement. Vance is absolutely right that the solution to the crisis in hillbilly culture is ultimately not going to come from the government. It must come from within.
And the only way to truly change hearts is with the gospel.
(Final note – while I think this book contains a compelling story that needs to be heard, there is a great deal of profanity in the book. Use your best judgment as to whether you think you should read it).