Hillbilly Elegy

by J.D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy Summary

Hillbilly Elegy is J.D. Vance's memoir of life in Appalachia. Appalachia was once an industrial haven, home to the coal and steel industries, but the decline in manufacturing has resulted in widespread economic hardship.

  • Vance's grandparents once had a difficult marriage, and Vance's mother, Bev, never recovered from the trauma of her childhood.
  • Bev grew increasingly addicted to drugs. Her erratic and violent behavior resulted in Vance's grandmother becoming his primary caregiver.
  • Vance enlisted in the Marines and served in Iraq. Upon returning, he enrolled in college and then earned his law degree, settling into a comfortable upper-middle-class life.


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Last Updated on May 23, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1515

J.D. Vance's illuminating memoir Hillbilly Elegy sheds light on the oft-overlooked lives of the white working class. In particular, Vance focuses on the "hillbillies" of Appalachia, a region of the Eastern United States named after the Appalachian Mountains, which run through it. Though "Appalachia" stretches from Alabama and Georgia in the South to Pennsylvania and New York in the North, much of the memoir takes place in Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky (two cities that, according to Vance, reflect the realities and eccentricities of life everywhere in Appalachia). Moving between the Rust Belt city of Middletown and the impoverished town of Jackson, Vance traces his family's often strange and complex personal history, painting a stark and human portrait of working class America.

Vance begins by telling the story of how his grandparents moved from their hometown of Jackson to Middletown, Ohio. Papaw (then known as James Lee or "Jim" Vance) lost his father as an infant and was sent to live with his grandfather, Pap Taulbee, in a little two-room house. Papaw spent his youth with his neighbors, Blaine and Hattie Blanton and their eight children, among them Bonnie Blanton, who would later become Bonnie Vance, a.k.a. Mamaw. In 1946, when Mamaw was just thirteen and Papaw sixteen, Mamaw got pregnant. Fearing retribution from the Blanton brothers, who had a long history of protecting Mamaw's honor, the couple married and moved to Middletown. In a tragic turn of events, the baby girl that brought them to Ohio died in the first week.

Following the death of their first child, Mamaw and Papaw Vance didn't return to Kentucky. Instead, the young couple remained in Middletown, where Mamaw became a housewife and Papaw got a job at Armco (now called AK Steel Holding Corporation), a steel company that dominated the economy in that part of Ohio for decades. Armco recruited aggressively in Kentucky, and many Jackson men, in addition to Papaw, moved to Middletown with their families and extended families, looking for a better life. Nevertheless, those first years in Middletown were lonely. Mamaw was home alone, and Papaw had no friends. Eventually, they had Jimmy, their eldest son, but, after that, Mamaw suffered eight more miscarriages before she gave birth to her Bev, J.D. Vance's mother. Then came Lori, also known as Aunt Wee, two years later.

Things got worse for the Vances before they got better. Papaw, who was otherwise a mild-mannered man, became a violent, philandering oaf when he drank, and this put strain on the marriage. Mamaw had been brought up in a family where women gave as good as they got, so, when Papaw struck her, she struck him right back. Their fights were small, at first, but gradually grew in length and severity. It took Jimmy, the eldest, a while to understand what was happening. By then, the damage was more or less done. Jimmy moved out of the house just as soon as he graduated high school, taking a job at Armco in order to support himself. Lori dropped out of high school, married young, and got trapped in an abusive marriage. Eventually, though, Papaw stopped drinking, and the two became wonderful parents and grandparents. With their help, Lori divorced her husband, went to school, and got a nice job in radiology. Jimmy got a job at Johnson & Johnson. Both of them turned out well.

Things didn't work out as nicely for Bev, however. Though a promising student, Bev dropped out of high school at eighteen because she was pregnant. With help from Mamaw and Papaw, she was able to graduate from nursing school...

(This entire section contains 1515 words.)

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and care for her daughter, Lindsay, the author's older sister. But Bev wasn't able to overcome the odds, and she soon sank into drug addiction. Vance chronicles the series of bad boyfriends and husbands that pass in and out of Bev's life, starting with Bob Hamel, her third husband. Bob makes the biggest impression on Vance—if only because Bev changes his name from James Donald Bowman to James David Hamel, effectively erasing his father, Donald Bowman, who ran out on them and started a new family he liked better. (Years later, at his wedding, Vance changed his name from Hamel to Vance.)

Vance's life underwent a dramatic change not long after his mother's marriage to Bob. Bev's regular drug abuse resulted in increasingly erratic and dangerous behavior. She crashed her car in what may have been a suicide attempt, and, after being released from the hospital, she threatened to crash a car with her and Vance in it. Bev was arrested, and young Vance was advised to lie about the incident to keep his mother out of jail. From that point on, it was understood that Mamaw would act as Vance's primary caregiver and that he would live with his mother only when he wanted to. He began to split his time between Middletown and Jackson, accompanying Mamaw on her trips back home. Jackson was the one place where Vance could be himself, and he loved the landscape, the holler, the people, and the peculiarities of his family. Blanton men, for instance, were known for their pride and unique idea of honor, and Vance's uncles quickly became role models. He particularly loved one old family story in which a young Uncle Teaberry overhears a guy say that he wanted to eat Mamaw's panties. Uncle Teaberry took this literally and forced the man to eat the panties at gunpoint.

Curiously enough, the Blantons, like most families in Jackson, rarely faced criminal charges for the more violent crimes they committed. In fact, Breathitt County, Kentucky, where Jackson is situated, has earned the nickname "Bloody Breathitt" because of the prevalence of such "hillbilly justice," as Vance calls it. Once, a man accused of raping a local woman was found dead in a lake with sixteen bullets in his back. Nobody was arrested for the murder. These selective policing practices allowed hillbillies like the Blantons to cultivate a surprisingly lawless culture unlike that in other regions of the country. Only later, when drugs start pouring into Jackson and Middletown, do the hillbillies of Appalachia begin facing serious jail time. Increasing rates of drug abuse and drug-related crimes in Jackson exacerbate the already existent trend of decreasing social mobility in Appalachia.

Vance admits that there are many different factors contributing to Appalachia's decline. In Jackson, the decline of the coal mining industry has had devastating effects on the local economy. Similarly, decreased demand for Armco steel has resulted in a depression in Middletown. Decreased economic opportunity is only part of the problem, however. Vance cites studies showing that the working class in Appalachia has the most pessimistic view of the future. Effectively, they've given up all hope, and the majority of them can't find or keep decent-paying jobs. Many of them also refuse to work, which is a problem Vance blames entirely on character. He notes with some disappointment that those with good jobs often squander their opportunities, showing up late, taking absurdly long breaks, and even stealing. Jobs might be hard to find in Appalachia, but they're even harder to fill.

Vance himself nearly succumbed to that trend of downward mobility. He nearly flunked out of high school in freshman year, and he spent much of his time skipping school and engaging in casual sex. Papaw's death hit him particularly hard, and he was taken in by his father's strict new church, which frequently decried the "devil music" Vance liked. If not for Mamaw's influence, Vance would never have gotten out of Middletown. With her help, he was able to graduate high school and enlist in the Marine Corps. While Vance was serving in the Marines, Mamaw fell ill, developing an infection in her lungs. Vance rushed home in time to sit at Mamaw's death bed. This loss was devastating. After the funeral, Vance threw himself into work, serving a tour of duty in Iraq and later using the GI Bill to help fund his education at Ohio State. He graduated with a BA and enrolled at Yale Law School.

Vance admits that his success is the exception to the rule for people from Appalachia. While friends and neighbors struggled to find work, support their children, and pull themselves up out of poverty, he graduated from a four-year college, earned a law degree from an Ivy League institution, married well, and went on to live a comfortable life. He explains this by pointing to advantages he had, like Mamaw's support, a relatively stable home life in high school, and a willingness to work. He wishes that other people in Appalachia had the same opportunities. In order for that to happen, though, they have to be willing to take a long, hard look at their own lives and behavior. Progress cannot be made when they allow themselves to succumb to drug addiction or quit jobs for no good reason. He places blame for the current situation on individuals, rather than institutions. In order to escape poverty, he argues, hillbillies need to first believe that they can.


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