It didn’t used to be a small celebration when I finished a book. That’s because I used to read the damn things like they were going to become contraband at any moment.
But, I humbly admit to being one of those people who have forgotten how to make time for things like books that make life worth living. Any activity that can’t be done simultaneously with another activity somehow feels unproductive. And sipping tea doesn’t count.
Thank goodness for audiobooks.
It was audiobooks that got me through the Lord of the Rings trilogy in middle school – a thick, plastic casing from the library that contained at least a dozen white plastic cassette tapes, unabridged and lovingly narrated by Rob Inglis. And it will be audiobooks that save me from the chaos of my cluttered mind.
The audio recording for Hillbilly Elegy is narrated by the author himself, J.D. Vance. Vance is a lawyer with a degree from Yale University, as well as a former member of the United States Marine Corps. And before anyone comes after me, use the word former with all due respect. Once a Marine, always a Marine, as they say.
The book is a memoir. It has the feel of a story told by someone who never expected to find themselves writing any sort of book, much less a memoir. The language is plain and unadorned. Vance describes his world and his experiences simply and in great detail, with little room for the ambiguity that might be expected from writers with a penchant for fiction. It reads more like a conversation than an explanation.
There is a certain credibility that Vance’s simple narration style adds to the events of the book. I feel no reason to doubt that he recalled the various stories about his relatives to the best of his ability, nor that the incident involving Vance’s mother threatening his life did indeed happen. His descriptions of the steel town that he grew up in crumbling around him as jobs and economic growth moved elsewhere felt so comfortingly familiar that I couldn’t fathom the idea that they might be exagerrated in some way.
No one’s memory is infallible. But the things that shape us tend to have a way of clinging on for dear life, despite years of gathering dust and new experiences vying for space in our crowded minds.
So, let’s say we take Vance’s words at face value as the honest recollections of a childhood growing up among the white working class in a depressed area of Ohio. Let’s say that everything that happened in the book is the honest truth. Why, then, is the book and the recent film adaptation considered to be so controversial?
Since the arrival of the movie, adapted for Netflix in 2020 by award-winning director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Solo: A Star Wars Story), it has been a little harder to dig up older critiques of the memoir. Most search results are focused on reminding me of just how unpopular the film was. (Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a staggering score of 25%, lower than both Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and the live-action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist.) But, digging deep enough yielded me an interesting variety of critiques.
There seem to be a few schools of thought concerning the negative reception of Hillbilly Elegy: the most prominent critique is that it paints an unfair and decidedly unenlightened view of the problems that plague Appalachia, the South and the white working class at large.
This critique seems to center about how the characters in the book and the events that shape Vance’s life perpetuate stereotypes about the region, its people, and its problems that many consider harmful. The book includes portrayals of single motherhood and a rotating door of father figures, spousal abuse, underage pregnancy, drug abuse and teenage years rife with dysfunction.
Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw, was depicted as a loud and aggressive hillbilly transplant from Kentucky. Pregnant and soon after married at the age of 13, Mamaw never had a proper education, even though she longed for one in her adult years. The violent and chaotic nature of her home manifested in each of her children in different ways. It did so worst of all in her daughter, Beverly, who later became Vance’s mother.
People often speak of poverty and generational curses in the same breath, and Vance’s family life provides an eye-opening example of both.
The many colorful characters in Vance’s narrative could, through a critical lense, easily be seen as embodying many an Appalachian stereotype. But, this critique falls apart when you view these characters through the lens we established earlier: that Hillbilly Elegy is not a novel. It is a memoir. That Middletown, Ohio is not a fictional amalgomation of all the worst parts of rural Ohio or Kentucky. It is a real place. And these are not characters. They were, and are, real people.
If we are to trust Vance at his word, then we have to admit that, sometimes, real life can look an awful lot like a stereotype. But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
I mentioned earlier that the decay of steel town prosperity that Vance bore witness to felt comfortably familiar. That is because I grow from similar soil. If I find it incredibly easy to believe that the people and events in Hillbilly Elegy are factual, it’s because I grew up bearing witness to a buffet of the same flavor of poverty and desperation.
Winchester, Tennessee is made up of just above 8,000 folks living in what was once a growing railroad town. However, as the railroad depots moved to the more advantageous areas of nearby Coffee and Moore County, the city has not had any real industry to speak of for the past half-century. While the opiod crisis has not had the devastating impact on my hometown as it has in other parts of the rural south, it has had its own slew of problems.
As of this year, over 18% of the population live below the poverty line, with the overwhelming majority of that 18% being white women. Winchester has a crime rate that is roughly 57% higher than the national average, and 13% of adults over the age of 25 don’t have a high school education.
Franklin County, which contains the cities of Winchester, Huntland, and other small towns, has had an infamously widespread meth problem ever since I was a child. One family in 2005 suffered bronchial myalgia, tracheal myalgia, liver problems, and other serious health conditions after moving into a home that had, unbeknownst to them, been previously used as a meth lab. And this was not a home tucked away in some dark corner of the county; this home was on Dinah Shore Boulevard, the main throroughfare through town.
But, I didn’t know any of these statistics growing up. What I did know was that any time my mother would load my sister and myself into our old white Bonneville to take us to school each morning, we would pass by the very face of white working class desperation. Lots overgrown with weeds and littered with trash and faded plastic toys were just as common as fields of corn and cotton. Untrained and ill-cared for dogs ran free in neighborhoods where leash laws were ignored, causing the death of many a family pet. And the arrival of big box stores and online shopping spelled the end for many businesses that provided jobs with dignity and decent pay.
I don’t see Bev as a stereotype, with her inability to keep well-paying nursing jobs due to her drug habit, her violent actions towards her children, and her revolving door of husbands.
I see her as someone who could have easily been a neighbor.
She could have just as easily have been me.
Which brings me back to Hillbilly Elegy. The latter chapters of the book focus on the people and opportunities that Vance credits with being the reason that he did not succumb to the despair that trapped so many of his neighbors in cycles of poverty and abuse. Enlisting in the Marine Corps brought him structure and discipline that he hadn’t known he’d gone so long without, but needed desperately. One step at a time, he followed his optimism for a better life through Ohio State University, and then on to Yale Law School.
None of this would have been possible, Vance claims, were it not for a support network of people who were rooting for him. Mamaw fought in Vance’s corner with a fury only outmatched by her love for her grandson. After taking custody of him from his mother during his high school years, she laid down the law.
In a 2016 interview with NPR, Vance recounts:
“Well, the first time she realized that I was hanging out with the wrong kids, she actually told me in a very menacing voice, look J.D., I’ll give you a choice. You can either stop hanging out with these kids, or I’ll run them over with my car.“
Vance admits that he would never have gotten to where he is today without a support system that stretched from Middletown, Ohio all the way to Hartford, Conneticut. And Mamaw was the rigid, steel backbone of that system. And this quote is especially poignant to me because it demonstrated so beautifully the turning point in Vance’s life.
Mamaw offered him a choice.
There is a quote near the end of the book that caused me to stop what I was doing and grab a scrap piece of paper and pen. It seemed to wrap up the memoir in the same very neat, tidy, and simple manner that I’d come to expect from Vance:
When people ask what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.”
It occurred to me in that moment just how much this statement matters. And, how much it matters to everyone else who may not be white, who may not be working class, and who may face struggles of an entirely different nature. Picture a queer kid, growing up in my hometown, where your family’s idea of acceptance is to tie you to a chair and hit you with Bibles. Picture a young black woman, grown out of the foster system and feeling at the same time invisible and yet still suspect to the old, white professors at her community college. Picture a person who is disabled, ignored and shut out of policies that only intend to help the “working class” who share the same capitalist ideas of work as a measure of value. These are people just as real as Bev.
The choices of others will often have just as great an impact on your life as the choices that you make yourself. While some people simply have to pick a door and walk through it, others are forced to pry locked doors open with a crowbar made from their own determination. They have may have no support system. No one in their corner, and a great many people in the other. Their choices matter more than ever.
Hillbilly Elegy is not an attack on the white working class, nor is it an attempt to scapegoat government safety nets or the Democratic party as the perpetrators of poverty in the United States. It’s a memoir. It’s an illustration of a life lived post-prosperity, in which the choices of others have shaped for our youth a bleak start and an uncertain future.
Our choices are the only ones that can save us from the choices of others.
I have to wonder if those who are upset by this idea might have a vested interest in making sure that the choices made for us are the only ones that matter.