What’s the big deal about this one? I must have been looking the other way in 2016 when J.D. Vance published his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. The book took on the role of “the crucial guide to understanding the rise of President Trump” four years ago, and that unearned and inaccurate designation continued through the fanfare of the movie’s release on November 11.
I didn’t read the book until 2017, and I admit enjoying it, primarily because of some traces of familiarity with its setting. I spent the first half of my youth in the heart of Appalachia, which is why I thought I needed to read it. What I discovered about the story was that it was just another family drama, with a mildly happy ending.
Vance began writing the story as a law school project assigned to him in his contracts class on the topic of economic mobility in the Rust Belt. His poor upbringing in Middleton, Ohio, followed by his unlikely journey through the Marines, Ohio State and ultimately, Yale Law School, is the triumph of the tale. His chaotic childhood brought on by his mother’s struggle with addiction, and virtually everything else, harmonized with Vance’s beloved grandmother, “Mamaw,” the family’s unchallengeable and highly flawed leader.
Amy Adams gives another top performance as Vance’s mom, but Glenn Close steals the screen with her portrayal of Mamaw, the chain-smoking, “violent non-drunk,” who served as her grandson’s protector and provider-in-chief.
Aside from these characters, the rest of the movie was simply underwhelming. I have read reviews that are full of rage about what too many people think the movie and the film were attempting to communicate, but it just isn’t that provocative to me. Maybe it’s because I read it and watched it without any expectation that it was going to explain anything to me that I didn’t already know. I kept waiting for the “aha!” moment, and it simply never came.
Sarah Jones wrote an excellent piece in The New Republic about the book four years ago, labeling Vance a “false prophet” of the region. It will help anyone understand the tension the story creates before consuming Elegy in either format. Maybe I identify with Jones’ viewpoint because she grew up in southwest Virginia like I did.
Being “from there” begs the question: where exactly is “Appalachia?” The region doesn’t really have borders, or walls on those borders, so debate often ensues when the question is asked. In a recent conversation with someone in Nashville, Tennessee, I casually mentioned that we were on the edge of the region. Oh, the outrage that provoked! By contrast, many have recently suggested that southern Indiana should be included in the region which seems about right to me. More importantly, the culture identified with the place has greater reach than the map.
“Hillbilly” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a person from a backwoods area,” and that the term is “often disparaging.” However, it is important to realize that everyone in Appalachia is not a hillbilly, and that there are Appalachians all over America.
Maybe another reason the story is unremarkable to me is because it is familiar. No, my family isn’t all that similar to Vance’s, but I know plenty that were during my youth, and others that currently are through stories from my siblings who remain there.
That familiarity helps me understand the culture that this story tries to describe, but it doesn’t make me a “hillbilly whisperer” any more than it makes Vance one. The reality is that families and cultures are complicated and constantly changing. We should work harder to learn about them, while understanding that this learning will not ever be complete.
So, yes, watch the movie. Or better yet, read the book. The story has real value for anyone who is unfamiliar with anything or anyone like it.
However, if you are looking for a story that makes sense of the American political experience of the last four or five years, this is not it. This story is a family drama that is a sort of microcosm of the eastern Kentucky/southern Ohio subsection of a part of the country that is far bigger than many realize.
On the one hand, I’m glad so many people have been exposed to it and have subsequently sought more meaningful “explainers” than this one actually is. On the other hand, I am sad that this story could be wrongly used as the only exposure to what I wish was familiar to every American.