I know I’ve once again come late to the party, but I just finished reading Hilllbilly Elegy over the weekend. I know in in the relatively short time from publication to the release of its movie version, it’s gone from media darling to being trashed for the author’s politics. It’s hardly the first time a “problematic” book has ended up on my shelves and it surely won’t be the last to find a home there.
Avoiding any political discussion of the author or anything else, I clearly heard echoes of truth in the text – echoes from a childhood back home and back when, down in the valleys of Maryland’s coal country.
Though I grew up in Squirrel Neck Hollow – or up squirrel neck if you’re local – I don’t have a particular strong affinity for hillbilly culture as Vance describes it. I might not have been raised in it, but the first half of my life was strongly flavored by it.
I mercifully missed out on the drug abuse and abject poverty – though both were in abundance no more than a stone’s throw away back in the 80s. The stories of batshit crazy relatives, of shouting matches, knockdown drag out fights over small piques of honor, of the extended family living way too close and being way too involved in everyone else’s lives stirred more than a few long slumbering memories.
It’s hard not to reflect on how my own life has spooled out as he mused about alternative opportunities of success for those who went away – who joined the military, followed career paths out of the mountains and hollows, went away to college, or through circumstances found themselves further afield.
I’m not sure I buy into all of J.D. Vance’s theories, but credit where it’s due, because he painted a picture of a world that I might not have entirely lived in, but that I walked through often enough to recognize authenticity when I see it.