The Standard June 4, 2020
In his eye-opening New York Times bestseller Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance writes “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.” Largely raised by his hillbilly Mamaw and Papaw who were from southeastern Kentucky coal country, Vance says his grandparents were the best things that ever happened to him. Their consistent love and devotion create security for him that is unshaken although their marriage is devastated for a few years with his grandfather’s alcoholism and violence from both sides. Vance’s mother does not fare well in the face of her parents’ difficulties and eventually struggles with substance abuse, depression and a revolving door of husbands and boyfriends. She always loves her son and daughter but her ability to care for them suitably is intermittent. In hopes of their children and young grandchildren having a chance to achieve the American Dream, Papaw takes a job at a steel mill in southwestern Ohio. Vance, his sister and mother also end up spending years in Middletown. A complex mixture, the inner workings of the grandparents’ home include screaming, cussing, loyalty, horrible conflict management, constant affirmation that one can achieve anything with hard work and an emphasis on Vance doing well, particularly in high school.
In Vance’s introduction he admits that he is a biased observer and that this memoir, although an accurate picture of what he has seen and experienced, is a fallible story as any human memory is and that there are “no villains” but rather, “a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way – both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.” Throughout his book Vance illustrates what he perceives as a negative and almost crippling mindset of many hill people and the political solutions he finds most compelling to help them.
One rule he observes among this group of working-class poor is that no one ever should talk about troubles within the home or the community to neighbors or outsiders. In 2009 when journalists began reporting on the rampant problem of “Mountain Dew mouth” in Appalachia many mountain folks were offended and said this was only furthering false stereotypes. This kind of reaction also can be seen in many reviews of the book, with some finding the term “hillbilly” offensive and one reader claiming this book is why most people believe women from Appalachia typically are barefoot and pregnant. Numerous essays and even a book have been written to challenge the perspective and conclusions of Hillbilly Elegy.
To use a phrase probably coined by Oprah, Vance is “speaking his truth.” This means he is telling about his experiences or his reality. Like most of us, he draws larger societal implications based on a combination of personal perspective plus objective data. Vance perceives the people and the place where he grew up through his own lens, much like we do. Some from Middletown are offended by his description of the residents and the town; their experiences are nothing like his. Two of us could have been raised in the same eastern North Carolina town but could write books describing two seemingly opposite places. One might show local government reacting quickly to our public works requests and law enforcement dealing with us politely or giving us the benefit of the doubt. The other might say something very different. How much faith we put in certain people or institutions usually depends on how they have come through for us. Feeling optimistic or pessimistic about social structures is determined largely by how dependable we have found them. The way we view mothers or fathers or teachers or ministers or Christians or our chance to succeed is influenced by what we have experienced and seen. There certainly is a lot of objective truth but there is also opinion that can be hard for us to admit is not necessarily based on facts. We don’t always know someone’s intentions and it is difficult to walk in the shoes of another person. We should think twice before labeling someone or something “good” or “bad” or people’s perspectives as “right” or “wrong.” When Jesus spoke of the truth about the Kingdom of God, not just “his truth,” he did it with understanding and empathy for the experiences of each listener. He presented gospel truths in a variety of ways, depending on the audience and the approach that would best reach them. “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” (John 14:6)