J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy takes readers to Kentucky and Southwest Ohio, home of the hillbillies, the real one’s who make the Clampetts look like straight-arrows. Vance explains his family history starting with his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, who like many in their hometown left Kentucky in search of a more stable life starting with a well-paying job in the steel industry. Economically, the family gains security.
However, alcoholism, verbal abuse and other destructive behavior held back Vance’s family. Papaw’s drinking and Mamaw’s outlandish responses to it caused their divorce. Though his grandparents always provided J.D. and his sister with the stability their mother, a single mom with a string of boyfriends and husbands, couldn’t provide.
He shows the hillbilly culture with all its highs and lows. The loyalty and chutzpah on the one hand and the lack of structure, financial and social capital on the other. Vance is candid about his mother’s drug use and series of boyfriends and husbands, about his grandmother’s temper and outbursts, about his sister’s responsibility and life choices. All along he explains how he thought about his family and his own successes and failures.
Vance also shares research that helped him understand the sociology and psychology which had been done about his culture. He shares his thoughts on what policies could help such at-risk families and where personal responsibility or tough love are the only answers.
Vance now is a big success with a good marriage and good job in California. He struggled growing up so much so that it’s a miracle he didn’t wind up dropping out of school and dealing drugs. Many times when Vance was stuck with a bad situation he chose a great option, all things considered.
It’s a fascinating read and it belongs near the top of any policymaker’s To Be Read List. My only criticism was that the end could have moved more swiftly. The parts where he goes into statistics and research could be more concise and more graceful. These are minor points.
I just learned that Ron Howard is making a film based on Hillbilly Elegy. Vance’s life is getting better and better.