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Literature / Hillbilly Elegy

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Hillbilly Elegy is a 2016 Memoir by J.D. Vance, chronicling his life growing up in a family of impoverished Kentucky hillbillies and his own unlikely ascent from there to Yale Law School. Along the way, he analyzes many of his experiences through the lens of sociological and psychological research, and offers advice both to hillbillies and the well-meaning liberals trying to address their problems.

Vance's maternal grandparents, whom he calls Mamaw and Papaw, married as teenagers and moved to Middletown, Ohio, which was then booming due to the presence of Armco Steel. J.D.'s mother, Bev, continued to live there, but suffered from drug problems and a long series of unsuccessful relationships, leading young J.D. to frequently flee to his grandparents and to the family homestead back in Kentucky. The family is prominent locally due to its connection to the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud and many other colorful tales about their violent upholding of hillbilly justice. J.D. has to learn, though, that the old hillbilly values can be more of a hindrance than a help in modern America.

The book received a fair bit of media attention due to its coming out in the midst of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, when many journalists and analysts were trying to understand why the white working class that Vance comes from was so attracted to the New York billionaire. Since the book was written earlier it doesn't directly address this, but it does presciently describe how the hillbillies' economic dislocation and loss of their former patriotism led them to embrace conspiracy theories and distrust all institutions.

Ron Howard directed the Film of the Book, with a soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. It was released on Netflix on November 11, 2020 and stars Gabriel Basso as adult J.D., Glenn Close as Mamaw and Amy Adams as Bev.

In a postscript, Vance was elected to the US Senate from Ohio in 2022.

Hillbilly Elegy includes examples of:

  • Amicable Exes: J.D.'s grandparents divorced before he was born, but after a few years they became close again while still living in separate houses. This reconciliation is especially impressive given that Papaw spent a fair bit of the marriage as an abusive alcoholic, and Mamaw retaliated by setting him on fire.
  • Babies Ever After: In an afterword written in later editions of the book, Vance reveals his wife Usha gave birth to a baby boy named Ewan Blaine Vance - his middle name taken from Mamaw's father.
  • Beauty Inversion: Amy Adams is usually known for being very conventionally attractive, but in this movie this is hidden with her bushy mousy-brown-to-grey hair, baggy unflattering clothes and being notably chubbier than she normally is (whether through her having really gained a few pounds, or through prosthetics).
  • Cool Big Sis: Lindsay is J.D. elder sister and their relationship is very loving, with her being protective of her little brother against their abusive common relatives. This is the most obvious in the scenes taking place when they both are teenagers, but it's apparent he still loves and looks up to her as much in the scenes taking place later when they both are in their late twenties.
  • Condescending Compassion: The premise of the entire book.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Though he doesn't name names, J.D. reports that this has become pretty common in his family and in the hillbilly community. He reports being forwarded emails alleging that Obamacare would implant everyone with microchips and that the Newtown massacre was staged, among other things.
  • Culture Clash: Hillbilly culture has different values from mainstream America, especially when it comes to violence. For instance, when J.D. was a child a store clerk reprimanded him for playing with a toy he hadn't bought, to which his grandparents reacted by yelling and smashing things until the clerk apologized. As an adult, he sees this as hindering hillbillies' success, as it also created personal difficulties for him. His future wife Usha has to explain that there are other ways to deal with conflicts besides blowing up or running away.
  • Descent into Addiction: Bev sadly follows this path through the whole book. She works as a nurse but then loses her career when she starts swiping painkillers. By the time J.D. is in college, she's graduated to heroin.
  • Destructive Romance: Every one of Bev's relationships seem to be this, as they all disintegrate amid noisy fighting within a few years or less. At the time of writing, she's on husband number five.
  • Disappeared Dad: J.D. actually has two disappeared dads: his birth father, Dan Bowman, who takes off when he's six, and Bob Hamel, who subsequently adopted him but then vanished after his divorce from Bev. A reformed Bowman reappears when J.D. is twelve, explaining that he hadn't wanted to keep subjecting the boy to a drawn-out custody dispute.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Much of what hillbillies consider justice will strike the outsider as being this. For instance, one of J.D.'s great-uncles responds to someone calling his mother a bitch by attacking him with an electric saw until he nearly bleeds to death.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: J.D. encounters a couple of these when he joins the Marines, such as the officer who slaps a piece of cake out of the then-overweight recruit's hands at dinner. J.D. is generally OK with this toughness since it helped him get over his inherited Never My Fault attitude, but he does admit that he's had nightmares about being chased by a drill instructor.
  • Dying Town: Vance describes Middletown this way, after its boom years in the 1950s and '60s ended. Though there's still a steel factory there it's no longer growing, and the downtown area has been decaying despite various renewal schemes.
  • Fish out of Water: J.D. at Yale. Almost everybody he meets is from a more affluent background than himself, and he feels lost for lacking the unspoken knowledge and social cues. Fortunately, he has Usha and a professor (Amy "Tiger Mother" Chua, as it happens) who are willing to spell things out for him.
  • Formal Full Array of Cutlery: J.D. is totally mystified when this appears at an important dinner with potential employers. He manages to run to the bathroom and call Usha, who explains the outside-in rule.
  • The Fundamentalist: J.D.'s birth father becomes a devout conservative Pentecostal between his divorce from Bev and his reconnection with his son, and J.D. follows suit for a while. While J.D. acknowledges that this generally improved his father's life and character, he eventually rejects the church for spending more time promoting conspiracy theories and criticizing other Christians than it does delivering positive messages. (Postscript: Several years after the book came out, J.D. converted to Roman Catholicism.)
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: One of J.D.'s relatives gets cut off from the family when she has a baby with a black man.
  • Honor Before Reason: The hillbilly code in a nutshell, which is a problem due to the differences between the hillbilly idea of honor and the legal system's. Near the end of the book, J.D. nearly jumps out of his car to confront someone who cut him off in traffic, before his wife makes him admit that it isn't worth going to jail to teach that punk a lesson.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Vance is not particularly kind in his portrayal of Appalachian "hillbilly" culture.
  • Never My Fault: One of the book's major themes is that hillbillies take this attitude way too often, which keeps them from honestly confronting their problems. In the introduction, one of J.D.'s employers hires a young man and his pregnant girlfriend at his floor-tile company, only to fire them due to their chronic absenteeism and 30-minute "bathroom breaks." The young man's response to his firing is only outrage: "I've got a pregnant girlfriend!"
  • Nom de Mom: Since Bob Hamel adopted him at age six, J.D. used the last name Hamel, though it became increasingly irrelevant after Bob disappeared from his life. When he was about to get married he and his wife had to decide on a surname, so he chose Vance in honor of the maternal grandparents who actually raised him.
  • Offing the Offspring: Bev comes terrifyingly close to this at one point when she gets into a fight with J.D. while driving and threatens to crash the car and kill them both. J.D. manages to escape and his mother is arrested, so we never find out whether she would have actually done it.
  • Promoted to Parent: J.D.'s older sister Lindsay becomes his de facto caretaker for a few years when they're teenagers. His book is full of admiration for her maturity and responsibility amid their crazy family circumstances.
  • Recurring Dreams: At the very end of the book, Vance says that for many years he had a recurring nightmare in which he, Lindsay, and Mamaw were in a treehouse when some threatening figure burst in and chased them — at first Bev, but later various other characters — which led Lindsay and Mamaw to escape down a ladder and abandon him.
  • Refuge in Audacity: When a furious Bev is chasing teenage J.D. threatening to kill him, a neighbor he seeks refuge at yells at Bev "I got dogs. They bite!" upon which Bev reacts at least a little impressed. Cue a shot to said dogs: two small, very lazy and quiet corgis laying on the floor and not paying any attention to the intruders.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Mamaw and Papaw married and moved to Middletown when she got pregnant.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Mamaw was only 13 years old when Papaw first knocked her up. Several other relatives also got pregnant as teenagers, including J.D.'s mother.
  • Vigilante Execution: One story J.D. hears from the Kentucky homestead regards a local doctor who was accused of rape, and then found one day with sixteen bullet wounds in his back. Something of a variation of the usual trope in that he had been arrested, but hillbillies apparently don't believe in due process.