Paul Prather

‘Hillbilly Elegy’ movingly reveals the fall of the working class

My wife was about 10 pages into J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” when she turned to me and said, “Wow. You should have written this book. This is your story.”

And so it is. It’s a lot of people’s story.

“Hillbilly Elegy” isn’t just a popular book. It’s an important book, especially for those concerned about the social and economic disintegration among what used to be called the working class, which increasingly can’t or doesn’t work.

Vance survived a hardscrabble upbringing in the rust-belt town of Middletown, Ohio. Years earlier, his grandparents had migrated there from Breathitt County, and he and his family continued to maintain close ties to Kentucky.

Despite domestic abuse, financial disarray, a drug-addicted mother, an absent father, and a revolving door of stepfathers, Vance eventually joined the Marines, found his way to Ohio State University and graduated from Yale Law School. He’s a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

As much as anything, his memoir attempts to explain to the elites among whom he now moves the collapse of the working class, especially those who, like him, have deep roots in Appalachia. These are the hillbillies of the book’s title.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is a compelling read. Mainly, Vance is compassionate and nuanced in his portrayals of blue-collar laborers and their woes. I did find him occasionally a bit too conservative, a tad afflicted with just-pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps impatience.

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is dandy if you’re blessed with the intellectual and emotional wherewithal to ace Yale Law School. If you were born with fetal alcohol syndrome or an average IQ or chronic depression, Yale may not lie even in the same universe as your boots. There are matters over which bootstraps exercise little leverage.

But whenever I became impatient with Vance’s impatience, I reminded myself he’s only about my son’s age.

I’m of his parents’ generation.

Despite our age difference, I was struck by the parallels between Vance’s story and mine.

My roots also lie deep in Appalachia. After World War II, my aunts and uncles, like Vance’s grandparents, fled Kentucky poverty for what they hoped would be better lives in Ohio and California. They found decent jobs, and a few prospered.

My parents moved us to Ohio twice, although both times we returned home. I spent my second- and third-grade years in Butler County, Ohio — Vance’s home county — part of it living in a trailer park.

Like him, I observed that sometimes you can remove people from poverty easier than you can remove poverty from them.

Many of the traits he describes as common among his own hillbillies — a pugnacious insecurity, hair-trigger tempers, unhealthy relationships with money —made me wonder if he knew my kin (or me) personally.

I do wish he had said more than he did about the powerful role religion once played among blue-collar Americans.

I don’t think, on the whole, my people suffered from quite as much dysfunction as his.

Religion is a key reason. His relatives might have been privately Christian, but apparently weren’t churchgoers. Some of mine, at least, were Bible-toting, fundamentalist Baptists who attended services several times a week. I’m neither a fundamentalist nor a Baptist, but I see how well that strict religion served them.

For instance, Vance’s grandparents’ marriage was wrecked by his grandfather’s raging alcoholism, the scars from which, Vance suggests, later led to his mother’s drug addiction.

That didn’t happen among my grandparents, or my parents, for the simple reason that they weren’t allowed to touch liquor.

Generally, fundamentalist churches damned all drinking, and gambling, and divorce, and philandering, and violence, and self-pity (and pretty much anything else that smacked of fun). Instead, they preached hard work, education, honesty, faith and self-restraint.

Openly violating their churches’ tenets not only would have earned these Christians the scorn of fellow parishioners, but to their minds, a one-way ticket on the express train to hell.

Thus fundamentalism, whatever its drawbacks, kept them sober. It gave them a support network of other sober folks. It provided a spiritual buffer against despair when times turned bad, as times inevitably did. It helped keep families intact.

Unfortunately, studies have shown church attendance, fundamentalist or otherwise, is all but disappearing among the working class today. Like marriage, religious affiliation now is largely a phenomenon of the college-educated, professional class.

And so, along with the vanished jobs in union factories and steel mills that Vance writes about, the protective bulwark of religion also has fallen.

The working class seems caught in a free fall of addiction, unemployment, fury and hopelessness. “Hillbilly Elegy” shows us how that feels from up close.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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