JD Vance takes a deep first person dive into the lives of people from Appalachia. After growing up there and subsequently going to law school, the author talks about his experiences and how they relate to the larger scale problems of social immobility.
Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix.
For years, Mamaw said, her children had left their bikes unchained in the yard with no problems. Now her grandkids woke to find thick locks cracked in two by dead-bolt cutters. From that point forward, I walked.
To them, the American Dream required forward momentum. Manual labor was honorable work, but it was their generations work. We had to do something different. To move up was to move on. That required going to college.
In the broken world I saw around meant for the people struggling in that world religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track.
Every two weeks, Id get a small paycheck and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug-addict neighbor would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy for myself but was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else. This was my mind-set when I was seventeen, and though Im far less angry today than I was then, it was my first indication that the policies of Mamaw’s party of the working man - the Democrats - weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation. Some blame race relations and the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Others cite religious faith and the hold that social conservatism has on evangelicals in that region. A big part of the explanation lies in the fact that many in the white working class saw precisely what I did, working at Dillman’s. As far back as the 1970s, the white working class began to turn to Richard Nixon because of a perception that, as one man put it, government was payin people who are on welfare today doin nothin! Theyre laughin at our society! And were all hardworkin people and were gettin laughed at for workin every day!
Though insightful, neither of these books fully answered the questions that plagued me: Why didnt our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all of these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom? It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.
Header photo © medium.com
Body photo © amazon.com