Nonfiction Nagging: Hillbilly Elegy

By about nine the night of the election I was sitting on the floor with a glass of wine, Halloween candy, glued to my phone in disbelief. Two hours later I was in bed, in tears, wondering what would come of our nation, economy, and global position. I'm still devastated and truly fearful for many populations, and even my position as a public school educator, considering certain cabinet appointments. Nonetheless, I am generally not a complainer (exception: sleep deprivation), so I started thinking about things I could personally do. I made my sporadic donations to Planned Parenthood monthly. I bought Sawyer nearly $100 worth of books on diversity so that I could start age-appropriate conversations with him now. I made my students aware that my class was a safe place and I gave them opportunities to write to vent their feelings, one way or another. I also worked to educate myself and adjust my thinking, which included becoming better versed on things like the filibuster (clinging to that sucker), the actual powers of the president (more limited than some think), and current policies that might impact my students are aren't in the country legally. I watched TED Talks, I read articles, and I tried hard to be empathetic. I also picked up a copy of J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to understand where those in the Midwest and South were thinking when they voted their typical red way. 

I'm not sure if I really learned anything factually new, but Vance's voice was likable and I rooted for him throughout. We know that the areas in question are predominantly uneducated, poor, proud, plagued by addiction, highly religious, pessimistic, and just plain desperate. Vance talks about how they are quick to blame the government for their misfortunes, but are slow to commit to steady jobs or providing stable home environments for their families. Vance is a product of the system and while he is sympathetic to the plight of the region, he also doesn't sugarcoat the fact that he holds them responsible for not pushing themselves to change. He also points out the cyclical nature of poverty, debt, minimal education, abuse, neglect, and all the other afflictions that plague these so-called "hillbillies." 

One thing that this did reinforce for me, though, was that I live in a bubble. Sure, I grew up in a household that struggled financially for almost my whole childhood, dealt with a father who was bipolar and ended up killing himself, had to help with my mom with my siblings in excess, and saw others in my household cope in various negative ways with our circumstances. But now? I have an advanced degree, a savings account, like-minded friends, and am in charge of my life. I am also white and live in California. I like my bubble and am incredibly thankful for it, but it limits my perspective. I have never lived in a home where abuse (physical, emotional, or of substance) is the regular. I have always seen the value of education and was never prevented from pursuing whatever my heart desired. I have never taken out a payday loan or had to sell my belongings to pay a utility bill. I have never spent excessive amounts of time with people who are racist. This book reminded me that there are so many factors that contribute to how people think and how powerful circumstance and environment is. If you have lived in a family that has endured generational poverty, haven't been fortunate enough to benefit from familial stability, didn't graduate from high school, and have turned to drugs then your way of thinking is going to be far different from mine. 

It's hard. 

But the next four years will be hard, and even harder if we don't stop to consider the opinions of others. And that goes for folks on both sides of the aisle. 

So, please, read Hillbilly Elegy, no matter where you're at politically. Sure, JD Vance's position is unique and he might not be the most authentic voice for all hillbillies (he was incredibly smart, had grandparents that constantly saved his family, and had it in him to eventually attend Yale Law), but still, the thought-provoking nature of the memoir is plenty.


  1. I was devastated by the election outcome, too....and went through a lot of what you have mentioned, and also spent time looking more realistically at the limitations of the presidency. I read Hillbilly Elegy, and while I also live in that California "bubble," I live in the Central Valley, and as a social worker, had many clients who could have sprung from the South...and some did. The generational poverty, with addictions, etc., all accompany many of those who live in the middle of the state.

    My experiences have, therefore, been altered by these work experiences I had for thirty years.

    I am trying to be hopeful...and I also started reading that other book, White Trash. Not as reader-friendly as Hillbilly Elegy, but more like a textbook. I'll be reading it in bits and pieces.

    1. Yeah, growing up in Modesto I definitely see some similarities between the Central Valley and the midwest... Sigh.

  2. I have wanted to read this one for a while, but I just found it on Scribd audio, so it's probably bumped WAY up the pile. I have a feeling it's going to remind me way too much of where I live in Texas. Sigh.