Monday, January 16, 2017

A Call to Action: My take on Hillbilly Elegy

I am an Appalachian.

My 37 years have been spent at around eight different addresses less than 1 mile apart.

I am proud of my heritage... proud to be from Breathitt County, where no man had to be drafted during WWI because we met our quota with volunteers.  (and yes, I knew that, even before I read this book)

Proud of my great-grandfather who was a school board member.

Proud of my other great-grandfather who was a school bus driver and mechanic, who was a well "witcher" with the best of them.

Proud of my grandparents who aspired for more for their children... and expected more.

Proud of my Christian heritage.

Yet Appalachia, and Eastern Kentucky, and Breathitt County also make me sad.

Sad for lost opportunities. Sad for a sense of pervasive hopelessness. Sad because we seem stuck...

As I finished Hillbilly Elegy, I had to look up the word elegy because I wasn't sure of it's exact meaning. According to, an elegy is a mournful lament or song, especially for a funeral or for the dead.

I can't help but think that Vance's title is double-sided. His memoir tells his story of "upward mobility", two generations away from these Eastern Kentucky mountains, and a large part is dedicated to his Mamaw and Papaw, who are both deceased. I'm sure his elegy was for them... two of the most influential people in his life.

My elegy, though, is for our region.

Many have said we are dead.

Many of us act as though we are dead.

The statistics don't lie. We have higher rates for drug addictions. More of our children are being raised by grandparents, in single parent homes, or in foster homes. We have high rates of unemployment and high rates of poverty and high rates of nearly every health problem known to mankind.

As an adult, I mourn that this beautiful region I love is fast fading away.

I mourn that traditions such as family and loyalty seem to be vanishing.

I am discouraged that a sense of entitlement seems to pervade just as the sense of hopelessness... because too many have been reared on the notion that hard work isn't possible and the next handout will fix it all.

We are jaded. We are tired. We are overwhelmed with all the bad...

and as our young people graduate high school and move off or shoot up and overdose, we throw our hands up and shake our heads and wonder what the solution is.

Why won't someone fix it?

The thing about Hillbilly Elegy is... it could have been written by anybody that I know. Maybe not the beautiful prose or the grammatical correctness... but the storyline.

My grandpa and grandma moved to Michigan so he could find work in the steel mill and make a better life for his family. Brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces followed, and their house overflowed. He worked long, hard hours so that he could put food on the table. They had three kids and lived in Michigan until family duty called them home.

My grandpa was the smartest man I ever knew, and never had a college degree. Each of his kids went on to graduate college. All four of his grandchildren graduated college. It was expected of us.

Expectations are paramount to making changes.

On the flip side, Vance talks about those in his family who struggled... who continued the cycle. We can tell those stories here, too. I know several people who LIVE those stories. People who see financial stability as the ultimate goal, who work hard but struggle with shaking the mentality that they are poor, that they are hopeless.

This book is a hard read, namely because it doesn't offer solutions. In Eastern Kentucky, we sometimes get mad at outsiders who "look down" upon us... and Vance got some heat for that, because he didn't actually grow up in Jackson... but the way I look at, your home isn't necessarily your address. I don't live at Hollybush Farm, but there's not a place on earth where I feel more at home at than sitting gazing out over the pond. And his premise that you can move a family out of the holler but you can't always take the holler out of the family was a very interesting point.

We are all products of how we grew up. There's always been a nature versus nurture debate, and I think it is a little of both, but we learn what we see and what we hear.

What makes this book even harder to read is because Vance places the ball in our court. He cites numerous support systems he had growing up, and then talks about how he would have surely fallen through the cracks without these.

So many of our kids in Eastern Kentucky don't have those support systems. One line that really struck me: "I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better." 

What can I do to make things better?

This is a question I'll be pondering over the next few days.  I'd like to think that I am part of the solution. I'd like to think that the way I treat others, that the kids I come in contact with who may not have strong support systems, know that there is a way out of the hopelessness.

I'm not sure I convey that message loudly enough.

We are not less than because we are Appalachian. We come from hearty stock. Our heritage has been one of self-sufficiency. We have allowed ourselves to become crippled...

or paralyzed, maybe, because it seems as though we can't recover.

I don't know the economic answers or the solutions to our drug problems or our health problems.

I do know that the solution to hopelessness is hope, and I can offer that.

I can offer a helping hand. I can open my eyes to the people who are trying their darndest to act like they don't need anything. I can care when it seems as if nobody else does. I can love someone where they are, regardless of their social status or the number of times they have gone off the wagon and chose to use again.

I can be the change... and you can, too. It has to come from within.

One small act of kindness... one affirmation of worth.

These build upon each other.

We are worth saving. Our young people, our communities, our storied pasts...

they are worth saving.

Thank you, J.D. Vance, for putting into words a call to action for our area.

May we all be a little bit more brave and step up to the plate.

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