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J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, chronicles his Appalachian roots and his upbringing in a poor, Anglo, working-class culture. As Vance tells the story of his journey from broken Ohio homes to the Marine Corps, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School, he also documents the numerous factors that comprise white, working-class Appalachians’ descent into poverty, addiction, and despair, leaving them ostracized and, often, in danger.
Vance was chiefly raised in Middleton, Ohio, roughly halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati. His ancestors were from Breathitt County, Kentucky. His family, who self-identify, and whom Vance identifies, as hillbillies, has a history of working low paying, physical labor jobs, which have disappeared over the years, as has his brethren’s desire to work them. As a result, his area of the Appalachian Rust Belt radiates hopelessness.
Over the course of the memoir, Vance details Appalachian values, with loyalty to family—at all costs—the most important. In his myriad childhood homes, physical and verbal abuse are a constant; he tells the story of his grandparents’ alcohol abuse and his mother’s history of drug addiction. Married five times before Vance is 18, Vance’s mother is often unable or unwilling to take care of him, and Vance spends large portions of his youth in the care of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw. His older sister, Lindsay, also often acts as a surrogate mother.
Vance credits his tough but loving grandmother for inspiring and pushing him to leave to attend Ohio State, and eventually, Yale Law School. During his time at Yale Law, he meets Usha, his future wife.
As Vance tells his personal history, he lays a large amount of blame for the misfortune of Appalachians on Appalachians themselves, blaming native hillbilly culture for its own collective inertia. Vance also applies blame to changes in American employment, especially large corporations sending jobs overseas, and to public policy indecision on how to fix his native area’s broken public schools.
Over the course of the book, Vance challenges and affirms a fatalistic view of life, both for himself as an adolescent, and for greater Appalachian society. He perceives that Appalachians have come to view their situation as an inevitable conclusion, one that they cannot change and, too often, bear no responsibility for.
This form of “learned helplessness” keeps Appalachians in static, despairing stations, continually searching for something to entertain them and break the monotony of life, be it drugs, alcohol, or unneeded consumer goods. Vance argues that Appalachians, in pain and feeling forgotten by society, turn to whatever they can to assuage that pain.
Vance falls squarely on the side of personal responsibility. A self-identified conservative Christian, he takes a differing view of poverty than liberals. For Vance, poverty is not a structural problem, but an issue of personal responsibility. Vance employs his experiences with those gaming the welfare system as one piece of evidence for why Appalachia and much of the South pivoted from a Democratic to Republican majority.
Hillbilly Elegy gained major recognition after Vance did an interview with The American Conservative, and has since met with strong, mixed reviews, often divided along party lines.