Ever since the surprise result of the 2016 election, I’ve been meaning to read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I finally picked it up after spying it on my mom’s shelf and ended up devouring this aching memoir in two days’ worth of nap times.
My family’s house in Ohio about 45 minutes away from where Vance grew up, so not only was I familiar with the town names and local attractions that the author speaks of, but I was aware of the low-income crowd that the memoir is about. I would say awareness is exactly the word for my knowledge level of this demographic before reading the book: definitely not an understanding, but not an ignorance, either. Hillbilly Elegy changed this for me. I could never claim a complete grasp without embracing this life and background for myself, but Vance has cultivated far more empathy in me through shedding much-needed light on the realities of the culture and community that raised him.
Born to a family of “hill country” Kentucky transplants, Vance spent his boyhood shuttled between his mother and grandmother, his living situation dependent on the ever-changing cocktail of his mother’s mental health state, activeness of her drug addiction, and fluctuating marital/relationship status. This instability was counteracted by his beloved, irreverent, “Mamaw:” the picture of hillbilly justice and the epitome of an influential matriarch. Mamaw was the force to push him past the infinite obstacles that could have kept him from his successful military service, earning a bachelor’s degree in just two years, and graduating one of the premier law schools in the country. Readers will take different lessons from Vance’s story, but none should expect a resolution to the complex cultural and economic issues that he describes. This unsolvable reality may be the most heartbreaking part of a book that doesn’t shy away from the truly gritty.
Vance spares no truth and yet manages to portray each complicated person in his life with fairness and empathy. I closed the book reminded of the privilege in my life but newly informed of the difference between monetary wealth and social capital. One (individuals, charities, the government) can aid poverty through vouchers, stamps, or scholarships, but completely fail to provide the social capital that gives the middle, upper-middle, and upper class their true advantage.
What does social capital look like? It’s having the right, “neutral” accent: think the one TV anchors use that isn’t indicative of any particular region of the country. It’s knowing to match your belt to your shoes or to wear a suit to an interview, the wherewithal to interpret a financial aid form (or have access to someone who can), the ability to call up extended family when you’re looking for a job and gain access to an instant network of folks who are willing and able to provide you with a foot in the door or the place at the top of the resume heap. All of this advantage is merely a function of birth. It is hard, even impossible, to replicate and proffer to the few who DO defy the odds and make it to high school graduation, let alone higher education.
There is so much more to discuss of Hillbilly Elegy. I applaud Vance for sharing these intensely personal, and often painful, experiences in the interest of finally raising a conversation about and an awareness of this “hidden” demographic– one that made itself known last November with its ballots. I would love to continue the conversation with anyone who was also touched by the memoir and encourage those who haven’t picked it up to read it, soon. Even if you learn nothing new about American society, you will benefit from reading one of the most triumphant underdog stories of our lifetime.