I just finished Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. The book has generated a lot of well-deserved buzz for many reasons, not least of which is the fact it’s a damn good read. NPR’s Terry Gross has interviewed the author, and The New Yorker gave it a lengthy review. Having the New York Times name Elegy one of “Six Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win” probably helped some too.
However, I requested it from the library long before the hype.
Elegy is the story of Vance’s predominantly Scotch-Irish family, who migrated from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio to find work, and took their hillbilly culture with them. His grandfather worked in the Armco steel mill.
My grandparents — who also had Scotch-Irish blood (mixed with German) — made a similar migration for work, from West Virginia to Massillon, Ohio. My grandfather got a job in a steel mill.
My husband, The Engineer, sometimes works in Middletown at the same mill (now AK Steel) that once employed Vance’s Papaw.
Clearly, this was the story of my people.
Except it wasn’t.
Certainly my father considered himself a hillbilly until the day he died, long after his drawl faded to what someone once said was “not an accent, but a more relaxed way of speaking.”
In fact, I don’t remember him sounding Southern at all except for a few words: “crick” for creek, and “De-troit”for Detroit. I was probably ten before I finally figured out “holler” was a corruption of “hollow.”
He also used expressions best described as colorful.
“She’s a tall glass of water.”
“He could roll in shit and come up smelling of roses.”
And my least favorite, “You and your sister are pretty in two ways. Pretty ugly and pretty apt to stay that way.” (He was joking, but it definitely kept any budding vanity well in check.)
But my family’s culture differed from Vance’s. There were no arrests and violent fights. My parents and grandparents expected their children to do well, to get an education and rise above the socioeconomic level into which they were born.
We were taught the only way to get ahead was to work — and work hard — to be punctual, diligent, and earn every cent of our pay, no matter how small that pay was.
My upbringing differed from Vance’s in more ways than I can count, but it really comes down to this: My childhood was stable, filled only with the worries of a kid — fighting with siblings, going to school, failing miserably at sports, and trying to get out of doing my chores. I never had to think about what circumstance would greet me when I got home.
That came later, when I was slightly better equipped to handle critical situations.
Vance’s childhood, and those of his parents and siblings, was crisis-filled, with his beloved Mamaw and Papaw providing the only stability he and his sisters knew.
I don’t know why this happened. My hillbillies were more German than Scotch-Irish — could that be enough to make our lives so different?
Like Vance’s, when you shake our family tree, some skeletons rattle.
- When my aunt became pregnant out-of-wedlock, she didn’t marry the father and gave the child up for adoption, but what compelled those decisions?
- My grandfather who told my dad he’d never amount to anything. (Puts the “pretty ugly” comment into perspective, doesn’t it?) Why would he say such a thing?
- The same grandfather left school at a young age and worked as a ditch digger for the government during the Depression before moving his family north. He and my grandmother lived in rented homes throughout my childhood, so obviously there wasn’t much money.
- My great-aunt took her father’s shotgun into the barn and killed herself.
- A night-time house fire once destroyed everything but the clothing and blankets my father’s family ran out with.
- My father used alcohol as an escape when confronted with life situations beyond his control (divorce) and also considered suicide — going so far as to write letters to each of us kids — before calling a friend who managed to talk him out of it.
- My brother killed himself for reasons none of us will ever know or understand.
- Another brother was once a sister, a circumstance that comes with its own identity issues, and a continually changing family situation. (He has always been more boy than girl. Looking back, that is startlingly clear.)
- I didn’t escape completely, being stupid enough to marry a bigamist. I even quit my job to work with him in our own construction business, somehow managing to forget I knew nothing about construction or business. And bigamy was the least of his failings, making me lucky to escape with only a bankruptcy to show for it.
The difference is these crises occurred either long before I was born or when I was old enough to have an adult’s perspective (if not an adult’s maturity) and strength to handle them. They also occurred over many years rather than continually, and though they directly affected my family, I was never the one in crisis.
Well, except for the bigamist, and that was so clearly my own fault, I could hardly claim to be a victim.
“Victimhood” is an idea Vance touches on in his book, a perspective some learn as children, taught their failures are never their own because they believe they have no power to change them.
Elegy provides a unique look at how these seeming opposite concepts — a perceived lack of power and an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions — can be tightly woven into a family culture, making it almost impossible to break free.
Our families form us. Our parents — and sometimes our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — are our teachers, long before we know we are learning. Our behaviors, attitudes, and emotions are rooted in a family tree that began long before we were born.
How is it that my family, with all its tragedies, managed to provide a stable foundation on which to grow, while other families do not?
I don’t claim to know the answer. Nor does J.D.Vance.
Read the book anyway because it will make you consider the question. And perhaps you will get a glimpse into a life very different from — or very similar to — your own.