Tribal Truths And Common Struggles: A Review of Hillbilly Elegy
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy offers a case study in survival. Published by HarperCollins in June of 2016, and praised for its honesty by the Economist, which said, “[Y]ou will not read a more important book about America this year,” the story remains timeless. Hillbilly Elegy’s great success is a reflection of its broad relevance. Vance sheds light far beyond the individual members of his family. His memoir’s gravitas derives not from decades of adult achievement (Vance was 32 by the publishing date) but from a young man’s success against odds—in our ongoing national drug epidemic, so many of his tribal peers find life nasty, brutish, and short—and from his ability to look closely at an enduring subculture that continues to confound Americans of all political stripes.
Reviewers have scoured this book in search of understanding about Vance’s tribe of origin. One of the book’s easy-to-miss revelations is that Vance’s subculture is not monolithic. It includes people with values, beliefs, and practices that sustain them. Like the seemingly very different worlds described in Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street or in the recent film production of August Wilson’s Fences, hillbilly culture implies a mix of sometimes conflicting and competing social forces. In focusing on the very particular, Vance shines light on universal truths.
The narrative opens wide the curtain on the author’s youth and young adulthood as a member of a complicated and largely dysfunctional Appalachian clan transplanted in Ohio. It is a war story, pitting drug and alcohol abuse, recklessness, violence, gun-play, and poverty of both wallet and spirit against the allied forces of persistent love, a feeling of security and belonging, expectation of performance, and confidence born of experience.
These forces collide within “Appalachian-American” culture—as at least one comedian called it—and also within his family, with relatives sometimes appearing on different sides of the fray. Casualties litter this minefield but somehow this young man finishes high school, completes a four-year tour of service in the Marine Corps, and graduates from law school at Yale University. Vance was just trying to grow up, to survive his childhood. Just as the stakes at risk in war may not be fully apparent until the war is won or lost, I don’t believe that Vance recognized that he had been in a battle for his soul and how his gun-toting, swearing grandmother, Mamaw, gave him a safe harbor until he reached the point that he could and should write this book: “Those three years with Mamaw—uninterrupted and alone—saved me. I didn’t notice the causality of the change, how living with her turned my life around. I didn’t notice that my grades began to improve immediately after I moved in. And I couldn’t have known that I was making lifelong friends.”
As a career community college educator who spent a great deal of time thinking about the social influences in learning, I reached for my yellow highlighter as soon as I read those words. Having grown up in a single-parent, working-class family, I saw much in the book that related to my younger self, my relatives, and my students. And my fullest understanding of and appreciation for Hillbilly Elegy comes when I approach the book as I believe my students would.
I designed and taught my freshman composition course in a way that attempted to equip my students with some of the knowledge and skills that Vance had mastered before he began college, while also providing them with new and somewhat alien academic tools—and, when I was most successful, a disposition to apply their newly acquired knowledge to their own circumstances. If I were still teaching, I would assign Hillbilly Elegy and ask my Reading and Writing in Psychology students to explain Vance’s survival and success in the light of their freshly learned theoretical perspectives.
Let’s start with the most striking character in the book. While hardly devoid of data and analysis, Hillbilly Elegy is essentially “character-driven,” and heading the cast is Vance’s larger-than-life grandmother and surrogate mother, Mamaw, a “hill” person fiercely devoted to her family and not someone you want to mess with. As a pre-teen, she reacted without hesitation when she saw two men trying to make off with her family’s two cows. Her rifle shots sent one would-be thief running and wounded the other in the leg. A relative intervened before she could finish the job on the slower varmint. Trouble seemed to follow her, not something you could say about opportunity or good fortune. She “never spent a day in high school. She’d given birth to and buried a child before she could legally drive a car.” Nonetheless, this hard-edged woman proves to be the most essential human ingredient in Vance’s young life, showing the reader that effective parenting can come in unexpected packages.
So much of Vance’s story concerns education, both formal and informal. Parenting is one of the outside-the-classroom factors that impact students’ odds for success. Mamaw and the USMC come across to the reader as the leading influences in the formation of the kind of student who could achieve at Ohio State and at Yale Law School.
Vance was what educators call a nontraditional college student, meaning that he was one of the first in his family to attend college; however, by the time he entered Ohio State as a freshman, he was well-prepared for the experience—unlike so many of the nontraditional students I came to know during the nearly four decades I worked as teacher and counselor at Community College of Philadelphia.
During Vance’s sophomore year in high school, when his drug and alcohol-troubled mother goes too far, Mamaw steps up in ways that Vance recognizes as life-saving, “showing me the value of love and stability and teaching me the life lessons that most people learn from their parents.” Whereas some students find success by escaping to a different school, Vance’s transfer to his grandparents’ home gains him the kind of nurturing and demanding environment he needed all along. Psychologist Albert Bandura’s concept of reciprocal determinism explains learning and change by focusing on three factors: environment, behavior, and personal cognitions (such as values or beliefs). Familiar with this concept, my students would recognize that Vance’s change of environment led to beneficial changes in his behavior and attitudes. They would be on the lookout to see if his new behaviors (increased performance in high school courses) led to new attitudes (confidence in his abilities and raised goals).
Mamaw’s critical intervention occurs when Vance is “miserable,” at his most vulnerable: “I didn’t know it, but I was close to the precipice. I had nearly failed out of my freshman year …. I didn’t study, and my attendance was abysmal.” Readers familiar with Laurence Steinberg’s Beyond the Classroom would see disengagement writ large in the book’s portrait of Vance as a young man.
Having inhaled Steinberg’s book, my students probably would find examples of authoritative parenting during Vance’s last three years of high school. Receiving at least some of the qualities of effective parenting is a lot better than receiving none. As surrogate parent, the brash and rude Mamaw hardly provides a portrait of the ideal parent; however, she demonstrates acceptance, encourages Vance’s autonomy, and consistently practices firmness in discipline—all key aspects of authoritative parenting. My students also would notice that she makes no secret of her belief in her grandson, of her love for him, or of her high expectations. Vance comes out the other end of high school as a relatively self-regulating, socially skilled young man with a sense of self-worth—exactly the traits that the research suggests are more likely to be found in a child raised this way.
Living in his grandmother’s world, J.D. arrives at a telling insight: “The best part of living with Mamaw was that I began to understand what made her tick.” Vance sees firsthand the consequences of Mamaw’s actions in her life, undergoing what Bandura calls observational learning. My better students might also note that Vance had already experienced the same phenomenon, albeit with very different consequences, in his life around his mother, who battled mental illness and drug addiction, and whose actions too often led to disastrous results for her and those near her. We are more likely to mimic behavior of others that we’ve seen benefit them.
A successful graduate of high school three years after moving to Mamaw’s, Vance reaches the conclusion that he is not ready for college—showing wisdom beyond his years. Her essential influence puts him in position to make a wise decision about his future. He enlists in the US Marine Corps instead. Mamaw saved him, but it takes several equally transformative years in the Marine Corps to turn Vance into the student who is ready to succeed at Ohio State and Yale Law School. Viewing life quite differently now, he uses psychological terminology to describe his discarded youthful perspective: “learned helplessness,” the belief that “the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes of my life.” As a Marine, he learns the opposite, “learned willfulness.” Having been taught Penn professor Martin S. Seligman’s concept of learned helplessness, my students would not have missed Vance’s reference.
The Marine Corps continues the work Mamaw began, providing structure and encouraging self-reliance. Notably, Vance develops what psychologists call an internal locus of control; that is, a focus on factors under one’s control rather than on those that, while real, may lie beyond reach. When he takes on undergraduate studies, he knocks the ball out of the park, even while holding jobs. Back in Ohio, he feels like an adult. At this point in the narrative, he contrasts the kinds of learning that made the difference in his life, leading the reader to see his three years with Mamaw as laying the groundwork for his changes, and his “education” in the Marine Corps as post-grad learning on his march to independence and responsibility: “For my entire life, I had oscillated between fear at my worst moments and a sense of safety and stability at my best. I was either being chased by the bad terminator or protected by the good one. But I had never felt empowered—never believed that I had the ability and the responsibility to care for those I loved. Mamaw could preach about responsibility and hard work, about making something of myself and not making excuses. No pep talk or speech could show me how it felt to transition from seeking shelter to providing it. I had to learn that for myself, and once I did there was no going back.” Indeed, my students would find much to mine throughout this rich narrative.
As a Yale Law School student, Vance experiences cultural isolation along with the expected academic stress, but by then he knows who he is. And he is not average anything. He’s changed. His odds-defying ability to thrive as a job-holding undergraduate student and later as a student in the pressure cooker of an Ivy League law school reminds me of a young black woman from my last semester teaching. Early in September, she promised me that giving birth to twins two months later would not derail her return to college. She quoted Steinberg during an office hour conference, causing me to raise my eyebrows. “I am engaged,” she said, playfully stressing Steinberg’s term. “You see, I have been listening and reading.” The Vance that arrived at New Haven was a changed person, like my young student—who, by the way, did successfully complete the semester after giving birth to a boy and a girl.
At Yale, Vance also meets his future wife, who offers him the respectful and challenging love that he experienced with Mamaw (but blessedly kinder and gentler), prompting him to learn yet more about himself, though at this point, the reader is not surprised to see J.D. Vance succeed.
For many of my students, the move from their neighborhoods and high schools to a community college classroom too often led to cultural isolation. My colleagues and I tried to welcome them into academic culture. Sometimes students arrived as emotionally well prepared as Vance. In my last semester of teaching, a former Marine named Ian who looked far too young to have completed three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately caught my attention. Like Vance, this young black man manifested great ease in navigating his new academic terrain, and proved to be one of my strongest students that semester. I thought about him again and again while reading Vance’s moving and important memoir. Like the author, Ian had arrived ready for college’s challenges. If tasked with writing a case study on Vance as portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy, he’d have nailed it.
My guess is that he would wish Vance had said more about the influence of his peers, but that is not a criticism of the book. The author left this reader wanting more—not from this book, which delivers plenty—but from future entries that Vance might offer in these important conversations. He speaks for, about, and to my students in this book, though he probably didn’t realize it when he wrote it. For that alone, I thank him. I suspect that we have not heard the last from this hill person, and that’s a good thing.
Author and teacher Ned Bachus earned multiple teaching awards during his 38-year career at Community College of Philadelphia, including the Christian and Mary Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. His book of short stories, City of Brotherly Love, received the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. His memoir, Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning, will be published by Wild River Books in 2017.