Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By J. D. Vance
This is one of the most meaningful books I have ever read.
J. D. Vance grew up in a poor dysfunctional family. He barely knew his father, who was gone before Vance was out of diapers. His mother, a mercurial drug and alcohol abuser, was married five times before Vance turned 18. While living with one man, she married another who she had known for a week.
And yet, in spite of this chaos, Vance managed to graduate from Ohio State and go on to finish at Yale Law School.
Vance tells his personal story in a straightforward way without sugar-coating, melodrama or judgement. There are moments of pain followed by warm and often funny episodes. His family may have been dysfunctional, but they were close-knit, and they cared about each other.
His grandmother, Mamaw, married Papaw, his granddad, when she was 14 and the couple moved from Kentucky to Ohio where Papaw found work in a steel mill. Like so many hill people who migrated to the Midwest in the 1950s, they brought with them their culture of hard drinking and hot tempers.
When Vance's mother was still a child, Mamaw told Papaw that if he came home drunk again, she would light him on file. And a few days later when drunk Papaw stumbled in the door, she was good to her word, dowsing him in kerosene and about to light a match when Papaw escaped.
Crazy as Mamaw might have been, Vance credits her and Papaw with instilling him with the pride and work ethic that helped him escape poverty. When Vance came home from the first grade depressed that he didn't understand a word his teacher used, Papaw encouraged him. In the ensuing years, Papaw often helped him with his homework while Mamaw always made sure he got it done. Mamaw continually told him that, in her words, he was not like the other "losers" around them.
Eventually, life with his mother became so unstable that Mamaw took him in. This was when his scholastic turnaround began. However, despite Mamaw's constant affirmation, the can't-make-it attitude that permeating his community still lingered in the back of his mind, and unsure that he could handle college, he joined the Marines.
The Corp had a profoundly positive affect. His drill instructors pushed him past what he thought were his limits which gave him confidence, finding he could do things he didn't think possible. The Marines taught him discipline, planning, and even money management, traits which helped him graduate from Ohio State in just three semesters before finishing Yale law school.
Everyone who reads this book gets something from it. I was influenced by his Marine Corps experience to make a resolution to, every few months, find a challenge that I can push myself to complete.
And while his story is inspiring, I also came to understand the hopelessness that permeates impoverished communities. People who grow up in an environment riddled with drugs, crime, abuse, failure and no positive role models have very little chance of escaping this life. This, of course, is obvious to all of us but when I experienced that world through Vance, it all became real.
Ultimately, this book shines a powerful light on the cultural and familial conditions that contribute to the persistence of poverty, and while it is difficult to find answers, J. D. Vance's life is an inspiring testament to what is possible.
Steve Spencer is the owner of the Birmingham Medical News.