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Hillbilly Life Lessons: A Review of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

hillbillyAround the world, every country has a unique word for poor people. To extend the definitions further, countries with complex racial histories often have words to describe poor whites and poor people of colour. This words used to describe these people have a two-fold effect. On the one hand, words like hillbilly, hick, and redneck (taking examples from the U.S.) are used as discriminatory definitions of people. These words can be used to cut people down to size, to shame them, and to hurt them. On the other hand, these words have slowly been reclaimed by these poorer communities and the definition of these words has become to encompass positive elements of these stereotypes. Communities have reversed the common discourse of these pejorative slurs and turned them into a celebration of identity—in all its flawed glory.

Where I grew up, suburban coastal N.S.W. Australia, we had our own list of words for such people. ‘Derro’ (short for derelict), ‘Houso’ (short for ‘Housing Commission’, the government body that monitored, handled, and distributed government housing to poor people), and probably the most iconic word, ‘Bogan’. These words, like others from these categories, make me think of uneducated, poor, violent, drugs, lazy, broken homes, unmotivated, welfare queens or the Australian ‘Doll bludger’… Really the list goes on. These words from Australia resonate with the same rhetoric of Vance’s novel. And just like the infamous Honey Boo-Boos asking people to “Redneckanise”, there are also unspoken codes about loyalty, family, trust, outsiders, and capital within Australia’s poorer sections of society that are celebrated character traits within the community.

If you’re wondering why I might be so knowledgeable about these terms, or why I feel compelled to write about them here, it is because I grew up poor. I grew up in government housing, I grew up with a messed up family, I grew up in a family with money problems, and I grew up in a family with mental health issues… Whilst I am not going to detail my life, like Vance did in his memoir, I feel like it is extremely important to acknowledge these roots. I grew up and worked hard to erase any clues that might give away my problems. Sometimes people guessed, or figured it out, but I would usually hide behind my perceived knowledge and intelligence. Bogans and Housos, by definition, couldn’t be smart. So if I did well in school, and spoke clear English, I couldn’t be a Bogan or a Houso, right?

I saw many people around me not succeed. And I still hear of people struggling to get out of the situations that life threw at them from a very young age. As Vance suggests, the odds are not in our favour. And when people do succeed and get out of that cycle, there is often a lot of rubble left behind. Feeling and being treated like an outsider in your community, you become one of the middle-class; that coveted social status that is both envied and feared. You lose contact with a lot of people and sometimes you chose to, because sometimes people are too problematic. Whatever the history you have, society repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t, couldn’t talk about it. That talking about poverty would open me up to a lot of ridicule. If you grew up poor, you know what I am talking about… How many times did you tell people you didn’t want to go on that school excursion because it was lame (reality, your parents had no money).

Poverty traps people not just in a monetary way. It also traps people in silence. People don’t open up about their complicated families or lives for fear of judgement. And people will judge. Let. Me. Tell. You. Vance’s memoir was like a breath of fresh air in this sense. It was not only a story of struggle and survival, but it was someone speaking up, and speaking out about these experiences. Even though Vance is from the U.S., for the first time in my life, it felt like there was a book out there that spoke to some of my own experiences growing up. Whilst Vance’s life was different to mine in so many ways, the fears, the worry, and the self-doubt that is fed into poor communities seems universal.

For all the things wrong with poor communities there is some good. And today, whilst I wanted to acknowledge the struggles, I also wanted to celebrate some of the communities unconventional strengths.

Loyalty with limits

It is an Achilles heel for most people, but sometimes deadly for poorer people. The types of loyalties you see in Vance’s memoir are the ride or die kind. I myself am fiercely loyal. However, like Vance hints at, it can sometimes trap you. My take on Hillbilly loyalty is as follows:

Loyalty is an amazing trait to have, but don’t let people walk on you. To paraphrase Monopoly, you can’t give out endless amounts of ‘Get-out-of-gaol-free cards’ to anyone and everyone (and this is family included). People who cannot give you loyalty and support in return, or people who misuse your trust and loyalty over and over and over again, are not people you should go back to.

Be a Mamaw

Mamaw in Vance’s memoir is a crazy old Hillbilly lady who has more guns than I think necessary. She is, however, described by Vance has his saving grace. She is the one, who in her own way instills in Vance the want to succeed, the want to change, the want to be better, the want to learn, and the want to grow. As Vance points out, many people don’t have a Mamaw to help them through. The reality is, that the people who need to read this probably aren’t going to, and the chances of them going on a journey to find a Mamaw in their community are also slim. However, the people who are reading this might get the opportunity to be a Mamaw for someone. And if you can:

be a Mamaw.

Don’t be silent

You don’t have to tell your life story to everyone you meet. However, talking about those raw moments and struggles that have impacted your life to someone you trust can be liberating. Once you say it out loud, something changes. Poverty can affect people in so many ways, but one of the biggest issues, I remember, was the shame. Shame is a powerful emotion that crushes any hopes we have of being successful. Shame feeds off silence, so speak.

Hillbilly Elegy struck a chord with me in more ways than I can say. It has renewed me in a time of my life where success has felted very far removed. But I have come far. I wasn’t supposed to make it. Yet here I am, giving it my all. And sometimes, I actually succeed.

Have you read Hillbilly Elegy? What did you think of the novel? As always, share the reading love.

2 thoughts on “Hillbilly Life Lessons: A Review of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy”

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