Sometimes I really have to force myself to break away from theology, ministry, and spirituality types of books. So I finally got around to reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by JD Vance. It was relatable to my own experience of being an Appalachian “hillbilly”, but different enough that I didn’t feel as if I was reading my own story back to me.
Vance tells about being part of the “working class” in the Appalachian hills of Ohio. His family was poor, hard working, profane, fist fighters. Marriages were often unhappy, full of yelling and sometimes hitting. Working class people often battled poverty, drug addiction, and alcohol. Tempers were high and people struggled to make ends meet. Vance faced numerous divorces, abandonment, physical abuse, school yard fights, and being moved from house to house. While my own family wasn’t violent or drug addicted, I can understand tempers and financial struggle.
Vance was a smart kid who broke out of the culture he was used to. He went to the marines, then college, then law school. He had to learn how to be in relationship with friends and his girlfriend without exploding or shutting down. He had to learn etiquette to survive in the white collar world. I can relate with breaking away from the culture I was raised in and feeling as if it is still part of me, but no longer my own culture.
Questions arise around how much of who we are is from our own choices and how much dysfunction is passed down through family lines. Questions also arise at how much government policies can help poverty and how much culture is on our shoulders to change ourselves. It’s an honest look at how much cultural dysfunction (not limited to Appalachia, but in this case defined by it) can damage people and be passed on through families, but also how those negative patterns can be broken and changed. It’s also an honest look at working class Appalachian families and the prevailing culture that has defined families based on survival tactics.
I appreciate this honest, but no elite and belittling look at Appalachia. I have often struggled to articulate my experience of being raised in the working class to my more comfortable middle class friends, and this memoir provides valuable insight. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about Appalachian culture, white working poor, domestic violence, and drug addiction. It sounds dark, but in a divided nation we perceive there to be a constant divide between uneducated and educated people, blue collar and white collar, city and country, when really varying cultural understandings based on isolation and family heritage are what separate us. Perhaps with some insight into these cultural differences we can bridge the gap between us all.