J. D. Vance is a proud hillbilly. He’s also a graduate of Ohio State University and Yale Law School, a U.S. Marine, Iraq Veteran, and a venture capitalist at a prominent Silicon Valley investment firm. But he’s still a hillbilly, and in his beautifully written memoir, which addresses the terrors and hopes of hillbilly life, he lovingly offers up his family – the failings of their lives and the fierceness of their loves – for examination.
This novel is a specific account of a general problem. The Scots-Irish who is described as “...one of the most persistent and unchanging regional subcultures in the country” settled in Appalachia, and when nothing was left for them there, they moved to rust belt cities in the Midwest, bringing their culture and problems with them. In Hillbilly Elegy, the Appalachian location is Jackson, a c oal mining town in the hill country of eastern Kentucky, and the rust belt city is Middletown, an Ohio municipality partially dependent on Armco Steel.
The book is an illumination of the author’s grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, the one who took care of him when his mother wasn’t able, who defended him against all comers and whose pride in him was a vast, ongoing gift for a child who had nothing. He describes her like this: “Mamaw was a lunatic, and our entire family feared her.” But he dearly loved that lunatic, and she adored him.
This memoir explores ideas as well as characters. One of the unfolding concepts is that, in spite of the chaos and hurt of his youth, Vance had a growing realization that he needed to be grateful – Vance resolved to be “the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser.”
This book has been described as an explanation as to why the poor, white working class helped elect Donald Trump. That may be true, but it is also an account of people whose problems are more significant than their coping skills but who love and are loved. There’s hope for us all.
To learn more about this and other books, visit the Boulder City Library at 701 Adams Boulevard, 293-1281, www.bouldercitylibrary.org