Numerous critics of J.D. Vance and his book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” have more than questioned his claim of “hillbilly;” they’ve called it a lie. As someone who identifies as a hillbilly and somewhat of a relative who spent time growing up with Vance, I beg to differ.
J.D.’s grandmother’s brother was my uncle; and though only my uncle by marriage, for a number of years, Gary Blanton and his siblings were as close to me as my biological aunts and uncles, and were referred to as such.
Vance’s great-grandmother, Hattie Hounshell Blanton, was revered to me as a “third grandmother.” Perhaps only in Eastern Kentucky do people claim kin this deep and wide. But I believe I have authority to proclaim Vance’s “hillbilly-ness.”
As a 21-year, official resident of Jackson, I spent a considerable amount of time with J.D., his sister, Lindsay, and their grandmother, Aunt Bonnie. During their pre-school years, these children would stay at their great-grandmother’s home in Breathitt County, what I assess was about as much time as they stayed in Middletown, Ohio.
So as a full-time resident, maybe I’m more of a hillbilly, but Vance can certainly wear the badge as far as I’m concerned. If he were to deny or not give us credit, there’d be dismay over that.
If you’ve never lived anywhere but Eastern Kentucky you may find his book to be bold, maybe even harsh, but I believe it’s quite insightful and pretty darn accurate. See, Vance and I hold in common a deep affinity for our people and heritage, as well as the perspective of being an insider on the outside.
After I graduated from Transylvania University, I moved to Nashville; and although I’ve now lived in Tennessee longer, I will always call Breathitt County my home.
Vance makes a strong case for the region being many different things at once — full of some of the nicest, most loyal, and hard-working people in the world as well as home to plenty of drug addicts, thieves and child-abandoning, sorry outfits. Some parts of the county are arguably among the most beautiful places on Earth, while at the same time there exists pitiful sights of garbage heaps and filth.
Please don’t misunderstand and think I’m in judgment. I fully empathize since I believe I personally have both good things about me and things I detest about myself. I couldn’t agree more with this quote from the book: “The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves.”
We are unique though, and we know it we’re proud of it. The notion that we hillbillies might see a family member as a son-of-a-bitch, “But he’s our son-of-a-bitch!” is a manifestation of our own antithesis. We take offense at the documentaries or stories that have been done on our people or culture, highlighting mostly the negative and rightfully so.
We’ve also produced a significant amount of wealth and some of the brightest minds ever. It’s simply unfair to depict everyone in a stereotypical fashion. It’s slanted and a lie to not present the positives. But is it the overall picture that we find hardest to see — the one that may show a dominant or prevailing theme, which we would rather reference as a subculture? These are concepts and questions Vance poses and attempts to answer.
“Hillbilly Elegy” is comedy, tragedy, fairytale come true, and mostly a heartfelt, analytical commentary by a very intelligent and knowledgeable kid from Appalachia. I share J.D.’s optimism for humanity and desire for better lives for our people. He, in no way, purports to have all the answers; and he merely offers a couple of broad-based suggestions with no direct road map.
To me, this is the beauty of his writing — the genuineness that after beating such odds, becoming highly educated and successful by many measures, he’s still much the same guy who admittedly doesn’t know it all.
If you read the book and you’re from Eastern Kentucky, I caution you to remember, even if you decide afterward that J.D. Vance is a son-of-a-bitch; he’s one of our own.
StefanieRose Miles, a columnist for the Jackson Times-Voice, lives in Brentwood, Tenn., where she works for a nonprofit.
At issue: Aug. 22 commentary by Brandon Kiser, “Author too removed from culture he criticizes”