Book Review ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Ben Miles

Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named J.D. But this isn’t the TV tale from yesteryear about Jed Clampett, who one day “while shotin’ for some food” became a millionaire by discovering oil in his Appalachian homeland and soon became the wealthy hick patriarch of the “Beverly Hillbillies.”

No, this is the true-life story of J.D. Vance as captured in his 2016 autobiographical book “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” In it Vance traces his hillbilly roots through to his unlikely ascension to an Ivy League law school. We meet characters who are depleted of hope and take refuge in alcoholism, opioid addiction and the thin lifeline of government welfare checks and the checkered use of food stamps.

We learn of the Appalachian transplants from Kentucky who moved to Middletown, Ohio in search of a prosperous factory job but when the factory was bought out by an international conglomerate and moved overseas, the Kentuckians who moved to Middletown for economic security found themselves left with mortgages and without employment. This produced a generational cycle downward toward impoverishment and dependency (whether it be substance abuse or the porous welfare state).

We are informed of the nature of hillbillies loyalties, such as a parent or grandparent (in hillbilly-speak the latter familial relationships are personalized as Mamaw and Papaw) having the authority to harshly punish their offspring but nobody else, under penalty of assault and battery, best not dare to attempt to correct their child.

We are made privy to such an incident when a hillbilly boy is playing with a display toy in a pharmacy. The clerk curtly tells the child to stop it. When the child’s adult relatives learn of the interaction, they march into the drugstore and demand an explanation, when the clerk gives his side of the story the adult relatives begin to manhandle and break each toy from the display that the clerk had asked the boy to leave alone.

Along with such personal anecdotes, Vance also provides us with a big-picture view of why such errant behavior and outlooks have taken hold in the so-called hillbilly regions of our nation and why what were once devoted Democratic voters – solidly blue – have now transformed into a stronghold for the Republican Party – a block of solid redness.

Vance, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Iraq War subsequent to 9/11, a Yale Law School graduate and now a happily married man, identifies himself as a political conservative. Nevertheless, his insight into the characters and culture of the flyover parts of our country amounts to a sociological treatise of the confusion and crisis that is nearly emblematic of 21st Century America.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 978-0-06-230054-6.


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