J D Vance dedicates his memoir thus, For Mamaw and Papaw, my very own hillbilly terminators. He was only thirty-one when his memoir was published in 2016, but he had come a long way from Jackson, Kentucky, the place he thought of as home. Here is his description,
Jackson is a small town of about six thousand in the heart of southeastern Kentucky’s coal country….Most of the people live in the mountains surrounding Kentucky Highway 15, in trailer parks, in government-subsidized housing, in small farmhouses, and in mountain homesteads like the one that served as the backdrop for the fondest memories of my childhood.
Having spent two weeks in America last year I was soon aware that my ideas of its geography, people, and ways of living were very patchy. I knew about tall brownstones with outside stairs in Brooklyn, but until I spent six days there, I didn’t know about the racial mix, the parks, the outdoor markets, the cafes and wine bars, the subway trains and that rich voice warning, ‘Stand clear of the closing doors, please.
After New York we drove on through New York State to Cornell University in Ithaca where we stayed in a house just like a red barn then up to the Canadian border. All along our route I was amazed by the rushing waters, and rich forests and then on the border of Canada to see the Finger Lakes (which hold 21% of the world’s fresh water) then back down through the Adirondacks to New York.
From this very short trip I was left with a great curiosity about the parts of America I didn’t know about, the history I didn’t know about, the background to the politics I had no clue about.
Since the lock-down, I have done a short Coursera subject called, The American South, its History, Music and Art, which was a very gentle introduction. I then was recommended to read this book as I was keen to know more about the rural poor, many of who are Republican supporters.
Vance tells the story of his family and upbringing from the point of view of one who has risen above it. But it wasn’t easy, and he largely attributes his ability to get an education to his grandparents.
They were both rageful people. He gives an example of what he sees as a typically hillbilly way to behave. His grandparents are with a child about four years old in a pharmacy, he picks up a toy without asking permission, the store assistant sees him and orders him to put it down and get out of the store. When the child tells them, they storm in and attack the clerk,
‘This toy,’ Papaw asked, picking up the toy. When the clerk nodded, Papaw smashed it on the ground. Utter chaos ensued……The man apologized and the Vances continued with their Christmas shopping as if nothing had happened.
This rage was not confined to outsiders. There was a great deal of violence in the home. Papaw was a big drinker and Mamaw was never one to hold back from a fight. J D’s mother grew up with screaming and smashing, drunkenness and threats. By the time J D was a bit older they had agreed to live separately. Papaw gave up drinking, but they never lived together again although maintaining a close friendship. Their influence on his education was vital in getting him to do his work and not to slack off. It was too late for his mother, however. She had been a bright girl, but like so many girls from that background, she left school pregnant and never completed her education. She went through husbands and boyfriends at a rapid rate, was addicted to various drugs and mostly unable to care for her son. His older sister had to parent him a great deal, but it was to Mamaw he went if he needed a safe place.
J D Vance writes so well about the life and feuds and struggles of his relatives and neighbours. He has a relaxed voice, uses a great deal of humour but doesn’t shy away from the issues of poverty and violence. After college he joined the Marines for four years, and attributes that time to teaching him every practical skill he now has. He judges his contemporaries harshly, and says in words blaming them for their own plight, ‘Too many young men immune to hard work.’
He certainly wasn’t, but my take-away from his book is that the class system is alive and well in the USA, and not everybody has the relatives to stand by them, or the resilient temperament that has the capacity to rise to challenges. I don’t always agree with his take on the plight of the poor, ( he says he is a Republican voter) but his book certainly provided me with an insight into a people and way of life about which I was completely ignorant.