Author too removed from culture he criticizes

In “Hillbilly Elegy,” author J.D. Vance proclaims himself a hillbilly, and then proceeds to criticize them from afar. But Vance isn’t a hillbilly at all.

Vance’s premise of criticizing the hillbilly from afar is a common one. Early on, he cites a 2009 ABC News special on Appalachia and the scorn it was met with online from the people who live there. Facebook users declared the special offensive, shameful and falsely stereotypical.

Vance characterizes these commentors as people unwilling to admit their problems and accept what people like ABC News tell them they need to change about themselves.

Seven years later, Vance is trying the same tactic as ABC News, telling Appalachia and hillbillies they are a “culture in crisis” through the lens of a personal memoir.

“Hillbilly Elegy” is the story of Vance’s troubled early life, and his emergence in his 20s as someone who “got out.” In summary, Vance’s grandparents left Jackson, Ky., for an Ohio steel town where his parents and Vance too were born and raised. He now lives in Cincinnati with his wife and dogs with a good paying job and a college education. The same can’t be said of most hillbillies.

But if I may be frank: the only hillbillies to “get out” in Vance’s story were his grandparents. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio. His grandparents grew up and lived in Jackson in Breathitt County — Hillbilly Headquarters, USA — and Vance spent some summers there.

But most of his life, and the majority of the story he tells, takes place back in Middletown just north of Cincinnati. Vance is no hillbilly.

On its own, Vance’s life story at 31 is interesting and at times heartbreaking. It deserves its own book. He lived through drug-addled parents, multiple stepfathers, an adoptive father who basically abandoned him, the Marines, and even a deployment to Iraq.

However, as a critique of hillbilly culture, Vance’s story falls flat because he isn’t one.

I write this review in an Appalachian hollow on the hillbilly highway 20 minutes from the largest city in Eastern Kentucky of only 20,000 people. I don’t consider myself a hillbilly, but I don’t consider it an insult either. I can see the struggles of the region every day.

I ordered Vance’s book in the hope that his story would be a frank look at the lives of the less fortunate people around me who face the struggles of the hillbilly culture and Appalachian economy daily. But Vance’s story is one about how his grandparents’ sacrifices made it possible for him to be where he is today.

That makes his critique of the hillbilly culture in crisis ring empty.

As an analysis of the problems of hillbilly culture and their economic prospects, Vance suggests that unemployment, drug addiction and faltering industries are self-inflicted wounds. Hillbillies, to Vance, have become a case of “learned helplessness” — that because of all the issues they face from the start there is nothing they can do to improve their circumstances.

They don’t trust any institutions, politicians or media. In effect, they think they’re on their own but are too helpless to do anything about it.

I don’t know if Vance is correct. I suspect he is at least partially so. But his perspective isn’t enough to make these kinds of judgments on its own.

Maybe the hillbillies, as Vance says, are reaping what they sow. Maybe their current misfortune is what they deserve. But the hillbillies also deserve an objective, constructive look at their culture and struggles.

If that can’t be done, then they deserve an honest analysis through the eyes of one of their own.

Brandon Kiser of Greenup is a recent master of public administration graduate of Murray State University.