On Saturday, I did something I haven’t done in a while. I started a decent size book (250+ pg), and finished it the same day. I started off doing my usual, which is to say, reading a chapter in about 5-6 different books. But, when I started the chapter in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis around 3pm, I kept reading until I finished the book around 9pm. While that gives you an idea about my reading speed, it should give you an even better idea about the nature of this book, and maybe why you’d want to read it yourself.
The author, J. D. Vance, was born in Jackson, KY in late 1984. I was born 3 hours south, and a few months earlier. In some ways, our experiences growing up were opposites. He lacked an intact nuclear family, and I had one about as solid as it gets. In other ways, we at least overlapped in terms of cultural dynamics. I was a little higher middle class (maybe a lot actually), and maybe a step removed from his experience of hillbilly culture. But, I’m sure our Wal-Marts were about the same on a given weekend.
The story Vance tells involves his time growing up in a family of hillbillies. His background stories about his grandparents and their parents sounded like something that might not be far removed from my heritage, but I’d have to ask my parents for more details after they read the book. Vance ends up in Middletown, Ohio (just north of Cincinnati), and most of his memoir takes place there. It’s a story of his coming of age with a revolving door of father figures and a mother who eventually becomes an addict. It’s a story of the importance of families ties, and of grandparents involvement in raising their grand-kids. It’s a story where the church plays an auxiliary role, and when it does show up, it’s the judgy late 90’s conservative Pentecostal version that was more concerned with whether or not you listened to secular music than whether you were actually growing in Christ and your everyday needs were being met. It’s a story that could have been mine, with just a few minor tweaks. Our stories at least end similarly in that both went to and graduated from college (my dad was the first in the family to do so), then did graduate work (I think I’m alone here), and then moved to another part of the country. In his case though, it was far more dramatic of a rise than it was in mine.
While on the one hand, I can’t totally relate to Vance’s experiences growing up, I definitely went to youth group with kids who can. I think once I hit the teenage years, I was aware of a kind of class divide among the monochromatic culture we had in Knoxville (or at least my homeschool/Baptist corners of West Knoxville). I also knew I was on the upper end of that divide. We certainly lived in an area that had its fair share of white trash (sounds harsh right?), but I certainly wasn’t a part of it. But, that’s not because I was actually better. It’s because I think my parents tried to stop a cycle that they had grown up experiencing. Had they not done that, I imagine I might have related to Vance’s story even more than I did as someone one step removed.
At the end of the day, this is obviously a riveting read. I’ve read over 100 books this year so far, and this is the only book I couldn’t put down once I picked it up. It sheds light on a problem that plagues the area of the country I grew up in. It also explains, indirectly, why people find a figure like Donald Trump so attractive. It points out that large swaths of the “Bible belt” actually have large swaths of people who don’t go to church and aren’t connected to any meaningful Christian community. It sheds light on a disenfranchised segment of the population that has been mostly ignored. But, it’s a part of the population that is near and dear to me because I grew up there. And if you did as well, you might find this book just as page turning as I did.