Book in Review: "Hillbilly Elegy"

"Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" is an incredible story about a world I knew practically nothing about. And once I cracked it open, I could not stop reading.

J. D. Vance records the childhood challenges he faced growing up poor in Middletown, Ohio. He recalls his Kentucky hillbilly heritage, and the generational sins/demons it left in left in his inheritance. Make no mistake, the poverty deck was stacked against young J. D. His father would leave the scene and put him up for adoption at a young age. His drug addict mother would be married five times with a slew of boyfriends in between. Such volatility gave J. D. the merest of statistical chances of making it out.

But like any good story, J. D.’s had a hero: his grandmother Mamaw. To say it simply, Mamaw was crazy. She was crude, vulgar, and violent. At one point J. D. recalls a story of her making good on a promise to burn her drunk husband alive with gasoline—fortunately he made it out with only minor burns. She threatened to run over J.D.’s sketchy teenage friends with her car if he continued to hang out with them. Mamaw even told the military recruitment officer that if he took one step closer to her house she would “blow off his leg.” They ended up having the conversation from the front porch.

But for all her faults and for all her expletive-riddled one liners, I could not help but love her. It was Mamaw who gave J. D. the stability and nurture he needed through one of the most turbulent periods of his life. It was her constant presence in his high school years (with mom and dad out of the picture) that likely saved him from a similar fate as his mother.

There is something about Hillbilly culture (perhaps personified in Mamaw's character) that is…admirable, and throughout this book I had trouble putting my finger on it. There are so many faults. So many cyclical patterns of destruction. So many problems that J. D. at length describes. But the loyalty these hillbillies have for family, the tough love they exhibit to each other, the mentality that says, “say something bad about my Mama and I will beat the living snot out of you”--is just plain awesome.

That is not said to ignore the unquestionably real issues of "hillbilly culture," and this book is largely a sobering read. Vance addresses the socio-economic issues of communities like his with somber frankness. He talks about cultural identity and his personal challenges with upward mobility. J.D. writes with the honesty and sensitivity necessary for such conversations, and his tone could not be more appropriate.

All in all, this book reminded me the importance of choices we make and the necessity of personal-responsibility. It made me a little more aware of the complicated challenges millions in the United States are facing right now as we near the end of 2016. And above all it required me to be a little more thankful for the start I have been given, and a desire not waste it.

*A note for those who may want to read this book: the language is reflective of the culture; meaning there is considerable strong language throughout.


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