I feel like I might be too simple minded to be writing my thoughts on this book. I cannot call it a review. When I saw the first inklings of promotion for the book and it's title (Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis), I thought - finally, someone brave enough to write the unromanticized version of contemporary Appalachia from an inside perspective. Then, among some colleagues and some listserves I belong to, I started seeing negative feedback about its contents, and I wondered if I should even waste my time reading it. As I tried to decide whether I'd read it so I could ethically participate in the conversation, it was quickly clear why I should. The feelings that I was encountering vicariously around Vance's work weren't based on anything that I felt was a validated response. I was hearing or reading comments from people who were reading critical reviews of the work, but had not read the work itself. Other comments came from people who had not grown up in southeastern Kentucky, which is a distinct region of Central Appalachia. It is a very distinct experience to be raised here or raised by people who still identify deeply with this place as their home. Yet, others were discounting Vance's work because he has conservative political leanings and no longer makes his home in the mountains. I had to read the book because none of these things should trump a person's individual and actual human experience as an Appalachian and the conclusions one draws from it. So, I bought the book the next day.
I have to say at this point, I have not read any actual review of Vance's work. I did so consciously so that I could form my own opinion of what I was about to read. I have had some conversations about topics that the content brings up, but not specifically based on what Vance shares in his writing. I listened to a short interview between Vance and Steve Inskeep of NPR because I was curious what this guy had to say about the "Trump Phenomenon". If I disagreed with anything Vance said in the interview, I can't remember. The only thing I remember thinking was that I felt he was hitting the nail on the head in a lot of ways. I did read a short article on the book in the New York Post. I will also share that I had an interaction with Vance on Facebook in a thread about his book. It went as follows:
Kelli Hansel Haywood - JD Vance... I appreciate the recognition that it is really, really complicated. I plan to read your book soon. I think facing issues head on, acknowledging them instead of being offended by the way it looks to others, and telling our own story is the only way to rebuild here. I came back to southeastern Ky to raise my family. It's a choice I don't take lightly and the more people I get to know who are ready to do what it takes (because it isn't going to be romantic at all) to heal this place, the more I hope that I will have a reason to stay.
So, with that background, I will share my thoughts on Vance's work from a "hillbilly" (though I typically don't use that term to refer to my people or myself) who pretends to be literate, but albeit might not be getting the right academic point that has gotten people's underpants in bunches.
I began reading the book with a pencil in hand underlining passages that I might quote when I write this post. I rarely write in books. It's kind of sacrilege coming from how I was raised to feel books are treasures and any marks I might add must be an inscription or some other kind of meaningful addition. The first passage I underlined and probably the only lengthy one I will quote is:
There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone's skin - "black people," "Asians," "white privilege." Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition -- their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. pgs. 2-3
I, like Vance, am from Scots-Irish and Cherokee descended working-class Americans. Throw a little Welsh, German, and Blackfoot in there of the same economic class of folks, and you have Kelli Hansel Haywood. And, like Vance, I don't idenify with the typical picture of "white America" defined as "white privilege." I'm not saying that I don't carry pivilege being a visibly white person. I can dress a certain way and move through any American town or city with some basic ease until someone wants to point out my womanhood, my "white trash" tattoos, or my "funny" hillbilly accent. With that combination, especially the accent, I become the "other" really quickly. It is my home and my people that I have heard degraded to my face when I travel. It is my home and my people that folks in Louisville would refer to as "that Kentucky" which they were adamant about not being. I've been made fun of in groups of people by colleagues and mentors for being this type of American. Add to that the fact that I can claim membership in the Cherokee nation, but do not look the part, and you have a double sense of outsider. Where do I fit, except as among those that do not fit?
So, you have to approach these thoughts of mine understanding that Vance is not writing as a commentary on eastern Kentucky, but more on the state of working-class Americans couched in his own experience as a displaced coalfields Kentuckian. As so many coalfields Kentuckians know, our people are spread all over this country because of the many outmigrations of hillbillies looking for work. Common places were Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan to the north. My own family went south in the more recent years - Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee. One set of family members ended up in Alaska due to the military. Yet, just as Vance's grandparents experienced, home tends to always be these mountains even when you have been gone for decades, or even generations.
Vance's family ended up in Middletown, Ohio not very far from College Corner where my step-dad and his first wife spent some time during a period of outmigration from which they ultimately returned. Also, near Dayton, Ohio where one of my Mamaw's best friends from Liberty Street in Hazard, Kentucky ended up with her husband. And, from the time Vance was small, just like most other hillbilly families I have encountered, he came home to Kentucky on holidays and many weekends, It was very rarely those of us still living in the mountains that made the trek to the places where our family members had relocated. It was them that had to come home. All this to say, Vance is writing from a very common experience among eastern Kentucky families. You can take the family out of eastern Kentucky, but I wonder how many generations it takes to get the eastern Kentucky out of the family.
We cannot discredit Vance on the grounds of being "an outsider". As I continued reading, I found many more similarities between my own childhood and his. These similarities were also shared among many of my peers.
I could go on listing similarities for quite awhile, but will stop at these significant bullet points. I call them significant because this many commonalities between my life and a complete stranger's... even so many of my own classmates, cannot be coincidental. The lifestyle Vance describes, along with the idealisms and attitude, among our people is very real. I have heard and come across many seemingly strong opinions about what Vance's depiction of our people will cause in our broader national context. However, I haven't heard or read a single person who was born and raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky say they didn't like the book. In fact, to the contrary. Many have found it to be very real and even refreshing. While I cannot agree with Vance on some very minut points because we differ somewhat on the political spectrum, I greatly appreciate his bravery in sharing his coming of age with us, with the world.
What I must question is the reactions of the public. First, I do not believe most of the reactions I have heard are coming from people who have actually read the book. I will read the reviews and listen to Vance's interview on Fresh Air soon to further my investigations into these reactions. At this point, I have to ask what it means to be so reactionary when someone shares what has been labeled as the "negative" aspects of being a hillbilly. What I think it means is that the people having these reactions fear an unknown. They fear having to address these real and ingrained issues in our communities when there seems to be no apparent solutions. On some visceral level, they fear that these issues make all the stereotypes true. I say stereotypes come from somewhere. It is only the somewhere is a misunderstood observation rather than an extensively researched and understood reality. So, stereotypes are judgments of what one has seen or heard and not understood. Can we not take the time to share our eastern Kentucky narrative in our own words through our own understanding and claim all of what we are at this point in time without being ashamed? Does everything not have a backstory? In this regard, I wish Vance would have been able to explain the effects that the coal industry had on this region, but Vance did not get out of line in speculating on this. He shares in his book only what he has experienced firsthand. It is honest.
In recent months, I have become very interested in the role epigentics can play in helping us resolve many of these issues that Vance and others (including me) find devastating. Because of this I was very glad to read Vance mention ACEs or "adverse childhood experiences" and how they impact us all through the rest of our lives. Of the list that Vance provides of possible ACEs, I have experienced all of them to varying degrees from one to more times than I can count. Vance writes:
Among the working class, well over half had at least one ACE, while about 40 percent had multiple ACEs. This is really striking -- four in every ten working-class people had faced multiple instances of childhood trauma. For the non-working class, that number was 29 percent. pg. 227
Does this fact make us an ignorant bunch of violent hillbillies? It seems some even among us some would think so. I say no. Many of our reactions come from generations of oppression. Because traumas are passed down in our DNA and triggered by things like ACEs, it is a credit to our strength that so many of us cope at all.
I firmly believe that it will be through accepting the realities of our culture and coping mechanisms both good and bad, and shedding some light on how they came about, that we will begin to heal and find the parts of ourselves that are our assets in order to be rid of the parts that are keeping us oppressed.
As Vance points out in his conclusion, I too believe that it is because of special circumstances that the successes we do experience here happen. These things happen in spite of a great many things. I'm all for holding up these very motivated and talented people and all the projects they are involved with, but not at a cost of allowing mainstream media to be the only ones reporting about our shortcomings. We can focus on the positive all we want and that will not change the fact that there are problems to be addressed and there aren't enough unique opportunities to give rise to an environment that fosters change and healing. Can we not do both? Can we not take charge in reporting and revealing our own shortcomings while also presenting and enactiing possible solutions? Vance isn't judgemental of the people he calls neighbors, family, and friends. On the contrary, he, like I, is very concerned about our future. It was at a recent town hall on Hep C that I heard a government official say that if we began a plan today to deal with the opiate abuse and resulting Hep C rates, it would be at least ten years from now before we'd know if it is going to work. This stuff isn't going away any time soon. In the meantime, how are we going to live with it? Continue to hide it until some outside reporter comes and reveals it like a lesion to the rest of the world?
We do need to create a space for the J.D.s and Brians of the world to have a chance. I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better. pg. 256
Can I get an Amen?! We will continue to be stuck if we do not act in this way. It will not be a president, a government, a corporation, a new lump of money, or a project that will bring us out of what can be seen as an abyss if you focus on the raw statistics. No, it will be acknowledging that these are people that are suffering, and young people who are being formed by this environment in a way that will forever affect their lives. Who can change it? The only ones with the power is us.
I see J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis as one of the most important texts written about contemporary Appalachia as it exists in the midst of so few. Yes, it oversimplifies some things. Overall, however, it paints an accurate picture of what it is like to be raised in a contemporary "hillbilly" family. Vance is not saying he regrets being a "hillbilly". In fact, I think he wrote this book because how he feels about his family is exactly the opposite. He believes they are worth the healing they deserve and that their path to healing will have a lot to teach mainstream America.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.