Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance is a memoir of the author’s life and the Appalachian culture in which he grew up. My book group convened to discuss it on May 21, 2017.
He paints a grim picture of his early life in typically dysfunctional yet strangely traditional surroundings. His mother was a drug addict with serial husbands and boyfriends. His biological father gave him up for adoption early on but Vance did get to spend limited time with him.
His maternal grandmother, Mamaw, was responsible for a great deal of his upbringing. She emphasized the importance of education and made sure he had a graphing calculator instead of a cell phone. Vance reflects upon his time with Mamaw and writes, “Those three years with Mamaw – uninterrupted and alone – saved me.” (page 138)
Vance learned about class divide by working as a cashier. He observed first hand how people game the welfare system and he did not approve. As he was finishing high school he was particularly touched by the book The Truly Disadvantaged by sociologist William Julius Wilson. He could see how his community was plagued by debt from overspending.
He observes, “Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate set of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother, and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consuming, isolated, angry, distrustful.” (page 148)
Knowing that he was ill-prepared for college, Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps. He sent the money he earned to to Mamaw to cover health insurance.
After bootcamp, he enrolled at Ohio State, where he worked three jobs and carried a full course load.
He was sensitive to criticism of the armed forces, always cognizant of a little boy he met in Iraq. The little boy was overjoyed at receiving an eraser. Vance vowed to be like him.
He became ill with mono and had to go home to recover. His mother was on her fifth husband but she took care of him.
Vance enrolled at Yale Law School with a full ride. It was the first time in his life that he felt out of place. He felt that he had to choose between his new life and his “hillbilly grandparents.” (page 205)
He discusses the importance of social capital and networking at length. He was at a loss for many of the rules of etiquette but received help and advice from Usha, the girfriend he eventually married.
Vance believes strongly in personal responsibility.Aas he thinks back on his upbringing he writes that he is convinced that his mother loves him and his sister, “But Mom deserves much of the blame. No person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card – not Lindsey, not Aunt Wee, not me, and not Mom.” (page 232).
With regard to his community and culture, Vance notes that “These problems were not . created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” (page 256)