Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

(Disclaimer: This is an introspection, not a book review.)

Being an immigrant, and a minority citizen to my own country, understanding where I came from is always important in discovering who I am. JD Vance’s exploration of his childhood and life so far in Hillbilly Elegy just does that.

Yup, I’m guilty. I loved this book because I can relate to it. That’s what I found surprising about it. From Vance’s journey migrating north from Kentucky to Ohio to multiple households, to finding his grind as a Marine and going to Law School, He refers to himself as a “cultural emigrant” who yearned for a successful and peaceful home.

One of the tips he learns from his grandma, Mamaw, who he attributes as the person who raised him, is that “having good role models around you will remind you that there is another life out there. And that exposure gives you something to dream for.” This took me back to high school when I always spent time at my friends’ houses for dinner, especially on Monday nights when my mother threw karaoke parties. But these families I lived vicariously through reminded me that I don’t have to be on guard all the time, that I can have a conversation without shouting, that there are people who listen, and that I can be deserving of people’s love.

Vance also finds himself as a minority to his own hillbilly people, “a stranger in this strange land”, due to his upward mobility as a Marine and with his college degree. He liked the feeling of self-sufficiency and providing for those in need, for the kind of people who he once was. One thing I would say is that towards the end, as his chronological storytelling becomes more relevant, the greater understanding of his past draws him further from it, nor can he really come back to it anymore. He will always be an outsider now, even to his past, family and hillbilly culture. (He lives in Silicon Valley now, might I add.) But the price he paid is the understanding of the things he can control, who he is, and that he isn’t that doomed after all the demons he fought in his youth. An acceptance of who he is.

I’m not holding him as a hillbilly spokesperson nor am I praising this to give me hope during this presidency, but I admire how this book allowed for sympathy and understanding with the storytelling of his past. Vance motivates me to tell my own story. It’s not that I find my own life boring, but maybe I am looking too much into the past to really see what’s in front of me and how far I’ve come.

Notes:

  • “Social Class in America isn’t about money.”
    • As a parent, Mamaw wanted her kids to do better than she had done, extended past their education and employment and into relationships they formed.
  • “To this day, being able to ‘take advantage’ of someone is a measure in my mind of having a parent… We recognized instinctively that many of the people we depended on weren’t supposed to play that role in our lives…”
    • I can relate to this on my inability to depend of people, or rather, how my sisters because self-sufficient in our separate ways. I am always taken aback by how people are being nice to me. I felt like I wasn’t worthy of it. Especially when I didn’t really do anything to deserve it. It took a while for me to learn to be soft and being accepting of everyone’s love. I had to let my guard down and let people in, eventually.
  • Viewing addiction on as a disease.
    • Vance’s mother was often buried under her a drug addiction. It was hard for him to witness all of things she was going through. Later, he learned, “Drug addiction was a disease, and just as I wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so I shouldn’t judge a narcotics addict for her behavior.” This is a school of thought that’s very revolutionary nowadays, that JD would probably often only generate this thought from his education. Regardless, this is very crucial in changing the way we view drug addiction and would be very integral to treating patients in need, and would help the community gain a better understanding and acceptance.
  • Hillbilly transplants from Appalachia have similar disadvantages as black people in the inner cities.
    • Vance didn’t talk a lot about this comparison specifically, but a lot of the general themes of the novel conveyed this point. He explained his hometown as the kind that thrived from the factories that brought in migration of workers and vibrant communities and crumbled with the fragility of the economy. It’s hard relate to this connection, especially when I can see that Vance is still privileged in various ways. He is still a white male majority, after all. No specific theory can explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America, “Our elegy is a social one, yes but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”
  • Life is intriguing. Tell your story, however boring you think it is.
    • The beauty of being the outlier, the minority, or the anomaly is that other are going to show their interest in your stories and find your journey intriguing. This is encouraging us to realize that even our own boring story is worth telling. Be wary, “it’s not just our own communities that reinforce the outsider attitude, it’s the places and people that upward mobility connects us with.” Sometimes, the upper class is tasked with the responsibility of opening their hearts and minds to outsiders who don’t belong; in order to promote upward mobility.
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