Everybody has adversity to overcome in life. We are all dealt a different hand of cards and must do our best to beat the house. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells of his own hardships growing up in rural Middletown Ohio, a city that has seen a steady decline in its social fabric (due in no small part to the evacuation of the steel industry). With a drug addicted mother and an absent father, he is still one of the lucky ones because he had a grandmother, or Mamaw, who watched out for him and encouraged him to do well in school. Sometimes all it takes is one adult figure to offer support and love to a child in order for them to ‘make it.’
In his book, Vance writes how he “watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown’s temptations—premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration.” He continues: “What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they have for their own lives.” When I look back at my own childhood, this rings with an element of truth. In my family, for example, going to college was the expectation. There was never a conversation about whether or not I wanted to go, or whether or not it made sense for me to attend a university depending on what I wanted to do with my life as an adult. It was simply what kids like me did after high school. Only as an adult did I become aware of the other options to kids coming out of high school: working a job, traveling, joining the armed services or the peace corps, etc. But the expectation for me, set by my parents and by extension my middle class background, was that I go to college. While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I found myself wondering what it would feel like to not have that expectation, or any expectation of getting anything out of life at all. A truly existential crisis, and yet one that a huge population of the people in this country face!
Almost every aspect of Vance’s life was setting him up for failure. Whether it was the acceptance of gun violence as a means to settle arguments or his mother putting soda in his baby bottle, his life was designed to keep him incapable of growth in all the important ways. Yet somehow, he made it out and now lives a comfortable happy life in Cincinnati. While regulatory bodies have done their best to help, and some of their policies have indeed made it easier for poor people to afford food and medicine, the revelation that Vance offers inside these pages is that poverty is culturally systemic. The hardships of Hillbilly culture, abundant in Appalachia and the midwest, will be a losing battle for those of us on the outside wanting to help. Herein lies the million dollar question: how do we help a culture that views outsiders with suspicion and aggression? Not to mention a cultural pride that would never admit to having a problem in the first place, and would tell you to fuck off if you asked.
The answer, it seems, is people like Vance. If he was able to grow up and ultimately thrive (he graduated from Yale Law School) then he is living proof that the American Dream is possible for the poor communities of the rust belt. Being an insider, perhaps he is the key, the antidote to a system inherently untrusting of outsiders. Sometimes all a child needs is a role model to aspire to, whether it be a politician, a musician, a scientist, or someone else of merit. Perhaps Vance can offer hope to some of the midwest’s most destitute children and communities.
This book ultimately helped me realize the vast differences in culture across the United States. While I was aware of worldwide cultural differences, I think it a truth that many of us forget the vast variety of people and different ways of life that exist within the 3 billion square miles of land that make up the continental United States. Hillbilly Elegy inspired empathy in me for people who grow up embroiled in trauma and I sincerely hope that Vance can find progressive ways to help uplift his broken community.