Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Summary

J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy Summary

Hillbilly Elegy is J. D. Vance's illuminating memoir of life in Appalachia, a region of the Eastern United States stretching from Alabama in the South to New York in the North. Appalachia used to be an industrial haven, home to the coal and steel industries, but the decline in manufacturing has resulted in widespread economic hardship.

  • Vance uses his own family as a case study in "hillbilly" culture. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, moved from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio when they first married. Their marriage was a difficult one, and Vance's mother never quite recovered from the trauma of her childhood.
  • Vance's mother grew increasingly addicted to drugs. Her erratic and violent behavior resulted in Mamaw intervening, stepping in as Vance's primary caregiver. With her guidance and support, he was able to improve his performance in school and enlist in the Marine Corps.
  • Vance served in Iraq before going to college at Ohio State. He later attended Yale Law School, where he met his wife, Usha, and earned a law degree. He was offered a high-paying job and settled down to a comfortable upper-middle-class life.

Summary

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 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...

(The entire section is 1515 words.)