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Hillbilly Elegy: a cultural paint-by-number

J.D. Vance’s 2016 novel, “Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is a memoir about Vance’s experiences growing up with a dysfunctional family in Appalachia and his rise above what he considers a “culture in crisis.”

In the 264 page book turned Academy Award-less Netflix hit, Vance talks about growing up with an absent father and a mother struggling with addiction.

Eventually, he moves in with his grandmother, known as Mamaw, who, through tough love, raises him to be successful. Throughout the book, Vance uses his experiences to critique the culture of Appalachia.

If “Hillbilly Elegy” was simply a story about Vance’s escape from a dysfunctional family, this article would end here. Vance’s chronicled experiences are valid. His stories of childhood discord, such as his mother’s battle with drug addiction and Mamaw’s often borderline homicidal tendencies, are his to write about as he pleases. Where I find great fault in the book is Vance’s attempts to philosophize about an entire culture and region. The word philosophize may be too generous for the untruths Vance tries to pass off as absolutes about Appalachia based off of nothing but his own personal experience.

The violent dysfunction of the family starts at the top. In one paragraph, Vance talks about how when Papaw would pass out drunk on the couch, Mamaw would cut up his pants. When Papaw would drunkenly demand dinner, he would be served garbage. Independently, Papaw was a raging alcoholic. Mamaw might have tried to kill a man at age 12, and she certainly tried to kill her husband by lighting him on fire. Together, they destroy a pharmacy after the cashier is rude to their son. This behavior is not in any way, shape, or form attributable to them being Appalachian. This behavior says a lot about the people who raised the woman who tried – and failed – to raise Vance, but says nothing about the region they hail from. We could talk about Bev, Vance’s mother who struggles with substance abuse and a revolving door of mostly no-good men, but I think the point is made about Vance’s family, and anything much further would border on a personal attack.

I will say that I was a child in poor, southern Central Appalachia not too long ago, and a fair share of cashiers have scolded me for touching things I had no business touching, yet somehow all the pharmacies in town have remained intact. I am aware that this is my personal experience in the region. Are there crazy, violent people who would break merchandise and threaten bodily harm to a cashier over a few exchanged words? Probably. Just because it didn’t happen to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. But that right there is the whole point: one person’s account can never be all-encompassing, especially not of a region so vast and diverse. Vance attempts to paint-by-number an entire region of people using his own family as a guide. Not only do the colors not match up, but they’re not very appealing colors to begin with.

Moving past Vance’s chaotic family as a representation of a typical Appalachian family, the way Vance views and talks about Jackson, Kentucky, the place he claims he once loved, is violently stereotypical. In one section, he talks about rotting, abandoned shacks, furniture on lawns and eight starving children in a two-bedroom house guarded by equally starving, chained dogs, with a father who “had no job and was proud of it.”

He literally wrote that the man said he had no job and was proud of it.

I am not Vance, so I will not use my personal experience to speak for a group of people in a place that I do not live in. I have never been to Jackson, so if that jobless, starving man and his family really do exist, forgive me. Not only does Vance call forth this image of a culture of poverty with this house that I am sure does not exist, but he goes on to write, “That house might be extreme, but it represents much about the lives of the hill people in Jackson.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with the narrative that Vance is spinning is not that he is imposing his own familial turmoil on all of Appalachia. Perhaps it is not his stereotypical and almost certainly untrue descriptions of the region, either. I think the most damaging part of the book is its deception. There are definitely parts of the book that are relatable to those from the area. Appalachia is far from a perfect paradise. There is poverty. There is addiction. Hell, there might even be a case or two of “mountain dew mouth,” though I have yet to see it. Vance takes the true struggles of Appalachians, exaggerates and amplifies them, and presents them in a way that is damaging to the people who call the region home.

And in the sometimes wise words of murderous Mamaw, “It's hard enough as it is. We sure as hell don’t need to make it even harder on each other.”


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