“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance


Hillbilly Elegy is not only a memoir and hero’s journey of the author, it is a critical look inside hillbilly culture still strong in some parts of rural and middle America.  Vance’s deep family roots are in Appalachia, namely Jackson, Kentucky.  There are two elements of hillbilly culture that Vance explicitly depicts as a framework through which the reader

can understand his narrative. The first is an internal code of justice, independent from the traditional legal system. This code is primarily based on the concept of honor: one’s reputation and that of one’s family is paramount. This is most clearly demonstrated through the Blanton men, Vance’s great uncles, who had committed various violent acts, mostly in response to perceived slights. Rather than being viewed as criminal or violent, their actions were necessary and applauded in their community. A second, related aspect of this culture is an almost paranoid privacy and strong suspicion of outsiders.

From an early age, the author learned to value loyalty, honor, and toughness. His grandmother (he refers to as “Mamaw”) taught him how to win a fist fight, while implying that he should never start a fight, only respond when necessary to protect his honor.

His g

randparents, like many of their peers, were enticed by manufacturing companies (in this case Armco Steel) to move to industrial towns of the Midwest (in this case Middletown, OH).  Vance was raised in Middletown, but because of the deep family roots and summer visits, considered Jackson, Kentucky, his real hometown.   Hillbilly transplants took their hillbilly values with them.  While transplanted families generally enjoyed higher rates of economic success than their counterparts who remained, they faced backlash from their Northern white neighbors. The blunt, honor-based hillbilly culture conflicted sharply with communities that placed a higher importance on politeness and formal authority. The author describes a specific incident in which Mamaw and Papaw destroyed items in a pharmacy and accosted the clerk for telling their young son, Vance’s Uncle Jimmy, not to play with an expensive toy. A reaction that seemed normal and expected for Mamaw and Papaw shocked those around them.

Mamaw was the most influential adult in Vance’s early life – she stressed the importance of education and was a solid emotional rock compared to his mother who went through numerous boyfriends and husbands and was addicted to narcotics.  The last straw was when his Mom asked J.D. for a jar of clean urine, admitting that she could not pass a drug test to keep her nursing license. At Mamaw’s urging, J.D. reluctantly complied. However, from this point forward, J.D., with his mother’s agreement, lived solely with Mamaw.

Vance’s first break away from hillbilly culture was his enrollment in the Marine Corps.  Prior, throughout his youth, the author claims he was plagued by a sense of self-doubt, something common among people in his community. Through boot camp and life in the Marines generally, he acquired a sense of confidence and discipline. He compared his new resolve and ability to tackle challenges to the learned helplessness endemic to his society.


er he finished his service, Vance attended Ohio University where he used his intense work ethic to complete his degree in 23 months while working 3 jobs and keeping up his exercise routine. He then attended Yale law school.

Although feeling like an outsider at Yale, he learned from his girlfriend (later wife) and a mentoring professor, that success not only came from hard work and good grades, but relied on social skills and networking.

Vance is critical of hillbilly society and its talk of hard work, yet laziness and helplessness at heart, and the tendency to blame their economic circumstances on the government (especial

ly at the time Barack Obama).

Watch Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, June 4

.  Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Wednesday, June 6 to discuss “Hillbilly Elegy” at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome. The Club meets monthly all year long.  Get 20% off the Book Club’s book selection all month, too.