I might know a thing or two about being a hillbilly. Much of my growing up took place in the Ozarks of Arkansas catching crawdads and eating black-eyed peas at school lunch, and my parents live in the mountains of rural Tennessee. So, when I had dinner recently with a longtime friend in New York City, and one of the first things she said was, “I think you would love the book I just read,” I knew I had to read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.
The book, subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is set in Middletown, Ohio, a town so close to where I once lived that my house had a Middletown zip code. Middletown is known for being the home of AK Steel, a large steel plant whose chimneys and plumes of billowing smoke could be seen many miles away. AK Steel and other once-thriving manufacturing plants in the area caused a mass migration of thousands of families from rural Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 40s with the lure of a better life – a stable job which paid well, along with the rest of the family and friends who would move alongside them. What resulted is an entire area built upon the families and culture uprooted from the hills of Kentucky.
It would have been a grand experiment if AK Steel and other Rust Belt plants had continued to thrive, but they haven’t. In 2004, the management locked the doors of AK Steel in Middletown, Ohio, which sent a ripple effect into the surrounding area.
Middletown is no longer a prospering community. It isn’t a town to go to during the day, and especially not at night. The author illuminates the interesting phenomenon that many in Middletown have not moved or moved on as a result of the downturn, but instead blame the government, or the school, or someone else as the reason for their misfortune. Vance doesn’t spare details, insights, or pieces of his story–he observes those who work the system with food stamps, and those who have become centered on less-desirable activities like drug abuse to fill their time. His mother became part of that system through the years, a revolving door of abuse, neglect, men, and drug abuse.
How did J.D. Vance survive, then, and find his way out of the system that has failed families repeatedly through the years? His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw.
Central to Vance’s story, Mamaw and Papaw came to Middletown young and in love, however ill-prepared for the demands of living far from family and their roots. They struggled, Papaw battling alcoholism and its affects while working at AK Steel. That said, Papaw and Mamaw found their way eventually, and by the time their grandson, J.D. came along, he remembers Papaw being proud of his hard work. “Papaw would stop at a used-car dealership whenever he saw an old Ford or Chevy. “Armco (AK Steel) made this steel,” he’d tell me… Despite his pride, he had no interest in my working there. “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” he once told me.”
Mamaw is perhaps the most memorable character I’ve read this year. She cusses constantly and is meaner than anyone else J.D. knows. Without her presence in his life, J.D. would not have been able to write the book. He would have still been fully immersed in Middletown, a participant in the perpetuation of the cycle of the working white class and the poor in spirit in America. This is where the power of Vance’s story lies, in the gap between where his roots are and where his wings take him.
Hillbilly Elegy is part riveting memoir, part direct social commentary. It reminds me of The Glass Castle and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings–painful yet joyous, and certainly important.
In literature, an elegy is a “poem of serious reflection, a lament for the dead.” To me, though, Hillbilly Elegy isn’t a mourning for what has passed, but is more a dive into the author’s understanding of from where he has come and how it has and will continue to shape him into who he is and will become. That, to me, is what we universally seek – to understand, and be understood.
I’ve posted this review as my latest recommendation at GreatNewBooks.org, the place to go to find great books. Please venture over and sign up to receive GreatNewbooks weekly recommendations directly to your inbox by clicking here.
Have you read Hillbilly Elegy? What did you think? I’d love to hear …