A Hillbilly Death Knell—or Hope
After seeing a couple positive reviews last summer of Hillbilly Elegy, I made plans to read it. As so often happens when it comes to getting to sit down with a book, it takes a while to follow through with good intentions.
I’m married to a woman from West Virginia. After twice leaving for other places, we live here again. With the state’s entire population often branded as “hillbillies,” I had more than a passing interest in author J.D. Vance’s musings.
Despite the mood swings I encountered while reading, I can see why it has generated nearly 4,400 Amazon reviews. (That’s about 100 times as many as a book I co-authored several years ago attracted).
During the first half, I got upset over a picture painted of a culture mired in alcohol, drug addiction, and self-defeating behavior. Neither my wife, nor many of the people I know and love lead such chaotic lives.
Story of Overcoming
However, as I continued through Vance’s account of his climb out of dysfunctional childhood circumstances, I found myself rooting for the Marine veteran and law school graduate, and admiring how he overcame.
Vance is brutally honest about the insanity of his early life, which alternated between southwestern Ohio (two hours south of where I grew up) and his grandmother’s eastern Kentucky environs.
That includes a heaping of crude language, which will likely exclude it from many Christians’ reading lists. But this is the kind of book that church folks should read, as well as the well-intentioned political leaders who tend to make things worse with their misguided efforts.
Taking Realistic Appraisals
The church should take time to review Vance’s story, since many it professes to want to reach are mired in a sea of hopelessness that religious rituals are powerless to change. Only by getting involved in hillbillies’ lives and showing them authentic love instead of pious platitudes will Christians be able to help reverse the tide.
As for government leaders, two examples in Hillbilly Elegy of their incompetence are payday loan companies and federally-subsidized Section 8 housing.
Vance talks about the lack of understanding politicians have when it comes to the usefulness of payday loan operations, since poverty-level users often rely on those admittedly overpriced services to make it to next week. For him, such loans were a lifeline during his past life of poor credit ratings and no credit cards.
Then there is the grouping of Section 8 housing recipients into low-income ghettos, where neighbors’ bad habits and abusive lifestyles reinforce those of the people living around them.
The latter reminded me of a comment by author Malcolm Gladwell in one of his books. Gladwell talked about a leading hope for lower-class students being exposure to people from better backgrounds, since the more affluent could show them a different way to live.
If there’s one thing this book accomplishes, it’s to demonstrate that the hope for hillbilly culture doesn’t lie in Uncle Sam swooping in to alleviate poverty. After all, that hasn’t worked for the past 50 years.
As Vance says, hillbillies are among the toughest people on earth, and while able to fiercely defend their family’s honor, must now must dig deeper.
“But are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help (kids)?” he asks. “Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”
Hopefully, we Appalachians will treat those questions as a wake-up call.