J.d. Vance’s Message In Hillbilly Elegy

J.D.’s book “Hillbilly Elegy” is available. Vance begins his story by explaining that he’s not a politician. As the grandson and son of drug addicts, Vance would likely fail high school, fall into drug addiction, or even be subject to domestic violence. Hillbilly Elegy was not written because he could avoid such a fate. This book was written by him to help people understand the lives of the poor, and the psychological effects that material and spiritual poverty have on children.

It is thought that hillbillies can be traced back to Irish/Scottish Americans who came from Scotland in the 18th or 19th centuries. These people are very poor and almost no one graduates college. Like his relatives, many Scottish/Irish Americans live in the hills and valleys of Kentucky. Vance grew up in Ohio, but Jackson, Kentucky is his true home. His grandparents lived in Jackson for the majority of his life. Vance illustrates how important the oral storytelling traditions of hillbillies in Jackson. As a child, he wrote about the great uncles he idolized. They would spend time together, telling him different stories. Vance was captivated by the stories’ “hillbilly justice”. Hillbilly values were often highlighted in storytelling traditions. These included loyalty and honor. Vance’s Uncle told Vance once a tale about Big Red, who insulted Vance. Big Red was warned by his uncle not to repeat the insults and he was beaten up by him. The man was then cut up with an electricity saw. He did not die but his uncle beat him up and cut the man with an electric saw. Vance talks more about the difficulties of Appalachia and Kentucky. Drug addiction and unhealthy lifestyles are still very common in today’s working class. Vance’s grandparents immigrated from Kentucky and Ohio to find work at Armco Steel. In 1947, they were teenagers and got married in Kentucky. They belonged two well-known hillbilly family members. His grandfather was the only option for him to make a living, and he wanted to work as a prospect in Kentucky’s coal mines. His grandparents had three kids, Aunt Wee, Uncle Jimmy and Bev. His grandfather, unfortunately, was an alcoholic. His grandmother wouldn’t allow him to live his life as he had chosen, and threatened to kill him if ever he came back drunk. She set the fire to her husband’s bed and poured gas on it several times over night. Aunt Wee discovered and quickly put out his grandfather’s fire. He stopped drinking in his twenties and became a successful alcoholic. According to Vance, children who were exposed to the domestic abuse of their grandparents are statistically more likely than others to have difficult lives. His aunt Wee and uncle Jimmy made it through childhood to live normal lives. His mother was a drug addict and abused domestically. Vance was her first child. Her second marriage ended soon after. Vance was adopted and raised by her husband. He was very caring. Vance began to love reading and attended school, which provided some stability. Vance believes that his mother was a good person and did her best to help her children.

Vance was close to his grandparents and they were an important part in his life. His calm period ended when his stepfather and mother decided to leave Middletown. They felt his grandparents had crossed some lines. Vance was extremely sad to leave his grandparents. Even worse, Vance was sad to leave his grandparents. Vance stated that he was first exposed to marital problems by his mother and stepfather’s arguments. This led to him having poor results in school. He was spending too much time listening to his stepfather’s and mother’s arguments and stayed up late.

Vance was surprised to come home from school one day and find his grandmother there. Vance’s stepfather had been in a heated argument and Vance’s mother tried to commit suicide. It was about his mother’s affair and he requesting a divorce. His mother had driven her car into an overhead telephone pole but she survived. His grandmother believed that his mother had made it appear as if her daughter wanted to die to distract from her affair. Vance and Lindsay moved back to Middletown with their mother after the fiasco. His mother was a mess and started to date men.

Vance became upset over his mother’s behavior one day. She made an apology and promised that she would take him to the mall so he could buy football cards. She got mad at him on the way and began speeding down the highway, threatening to crash the car and kill both of them. Vance tried to distract her by jumping into her backseat. He accelerated through a field to find a woman swimming in her backyard pool when the car stopped. He told his grandmother that his mother wanted him to die and begged her to call the grandparents. The woman got out from the pool and took Vance inside, giving him the phone. Vance was then taken to her by his mother. The woman called the cops, and they arrived quickly to take Vance away. Vance was called to give evidence against her during her domestic violence trial. He instead lied, telling her that she hadn’t threatened him. He did this to protect the mother and also because he made a deal, that if she didn’t testify against him, he could live with grandparents whenever he desired.

Papaw passed away shortly after his mother began dating Matt. His death had a devastating impact on the whole family. His mother began to take prescription drugs, and it was getting worse. His death devastated her more than any other person. She even made it a point not to let anyone feel the same as her, because her father was dead. His mother was also taken into drug rehab after attacking Matt. Vance had to depend on Lindsay, his high school senior sister. Vance was eighteen when his mother had been sober for almost a year and Lindsay had married Kevin. His mother demanded that Vance move to Dayton with Matt and his sister before he started high school. Vance refused and chose to stay with his biological dad, with whom he had reconnected recently. Don was also from Kentucky. Although he was considered a horrible father and husband by most, he had made radical changes to his life. Vance found this appealing as he was in search of a reliable community. Vance felt uncomfortable in Don’s safe and secure home. Vance decided to move in as a grandma. He stayed with her the rest of summer, before moving in with Matt.

Vance grew up and was successful in high school. His mother continued to use drugs, as well as her poor romantic relationships. Vance decided to spend his entire life with his grandmother instead of continuing to attend Narcotics Anonymous for support. His grades improved immediately and he stopped interacting with marijuana- or alcohol-using kids. Even though he was admitted to Ohio State University’s college, he didn’t feel prepared when it came to committing. Although he knew going to college was an investment in his future and he felt it, not all investments are worth the risk. His grandma believed education was the best investment. But he decided not to go to college and instead joined the Marines. The Marines seemed impossible considering his poor health and lack of discipline.

His grandmother sent Vance letters during boot camp, even though she was anxious. He felt empowered by the constant challenge and exercise that provided him with psychological stimulation. Vance was left to fend for himself in Iraq after his grandmother passed away in 2005. He returned from Iraq unscathed, and he was able to go to Ohio State University. Vance found that he could do more than just his classes and worked multiple jobs. It was a difficult time in his life. He was able to graduate in one year and 11 months. The next step was to apply for law schools. After submitting his second application, he was admitted to Yale Law School. He eventually received his degree.

Vance had to confront the immense class gap between his upbringing in the hill country and his current environment at Yale. He made friends with Usha his classmate and was often able to navigate social situations. After graduating from lawschool, he began dating Usha and later married her. Vance says that even though he has achieved upward mobility, he is still drawn to the darker sides of his community. After his Yale graduation, Vance drove to Middletown to buy his mother a room at a motel. He had to do this because his ex-husband had kicked his wife out for using heroin. Vance said, “Upward Mobility is not always easy. The world I left always finds an opportunity to pull me back in.” He doesn’t hide this fact, but he sees it as something he has to do.

Hillbilly Elegy, while a personal story, also examines Appalachian workers. It often integrates sociological studies into Vance’s life to provide additional information and offers new ways to look at poverty. Vance believes education and religion can be two of the best ways for young people to achieve upward mobility. Although Vance lists many economic and governmental policies that contributed in Appalachia’s current condition, he says that it is social changes that are more effective at reducing rural poverty than policy changes. Too many blame the government or other external factors for their misfortune. They are able to avoid responsibility and work hard. It is necessary to change the attitude of workers, which takes into consideration their “problems of faith, family, and culture.”


  • davidwong

    David Wong is a 29-year-old educator and blogger who focuses on helping students learn in creative and interesting ways. He has a background in teaching and has been blogging since 2006. David's work has been featured on a variety of websites, including Lifehack, Dumb Little Man, and The Huffington Post.