Reflections: A Hillbilly Elegy
“Oh crap, I’m a hillbilly…?”
This post is my analysis and reflections on the recent New York Times bestseller, “A Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance.
I was excited to head to my local bookstore to pick up this book after having just finished working in Washington as part of the White House Rural Council. I had just spent months representing rural America, trying to understand why their support of Donald Trump was so deeply rooted, and using all available resources to make their lives a little better with incremental changes in their outlook and their hopes.
“This book will give me tremendous insight into THOSE people,” I thought — people from the south and from Appalachia that come from those underrepresented, underfunded, and misunderstood areas.
It didn’t take long — about 20 minutes into the book, I swallowed with a big gulp in my throat, looked longingly out the window, and thought, “Oh damn…I’m a hillbilly.”
Now, I know I’m not a hillbilly in the traditional sense. I was born in Wisconsin in an area with a decent population and it’s own septic system. A state that was solidly blue my entire childhood, which then shifted to purple, and is now decidedly resembling the skin color of a snowbird after returning back to Wisconsin. (I’ve spent my formative adult years in Oregon — a state that prides itself in its progressive policy.)
But, those of you who watched the hit documentary “Making a Murderer” (12 minutes from my mom’s house in Wisconsin) or the hit news story about the Bundy family’s wildlife occupation in Oregon realize— there are some backwards nutjobs where I come from. I always looked at them from afar as sort of playful characters to whom I bore no resemblance.
Then, I read this book. It was like reading a watered-down PG-13 version of my own life. I related with far too many things, far too often, and could only be left thinking, “Wow, J.D. sure had it easy”. But, for some reason, I don’t think that’s supposed to be the takeaway from this memoir. I also couldn’t help but think about how weird it was that this book was a New York Times bestseller. Hundreds of thousands of upper-middle classers were reading this book and cringing, doing exactly what I thought I would be doing at the beginning of this read, saying, “This book will give me tremendous insight into THOSE people.”
So, now I felt like an idiot. After the epiphany about some hardships I have faces, I started to resent J.D. — maybe because he wrote a memoir about my life, but mostly because he thought surviving it was an accomplishment in itself and worthy of a book. Based on sales, I guess he was right…getting into an ivy league college that prides itself on lack of academic rigor and competition isn’t an accomplishment worthy of writing a, “look how I overcame adversity and took over the world” book — is it?
He also tries so cringingly hard to relate to true impoverished middle-America. He clings hard to his Appalachian roots in Ohio. As a proud midwesterner myself, I was disappointed that he distanced himself from our rust-belt bubble of poverty to align to the even-less-sexy economy of Appalachia. I wonder what his friends, who grew up in much more dire straights than himself, think about this book. He even mentions, “money was the least of our worries”. I don’t think many of the people from his region, or many of the people who voted for Trump, agree with this sentiment. It is truly a lower-middle-class story being warped and smushed into a poverty-class memoir — and I think it falsely portrays the true blight occurring in some of the worst regions of rural America across this country. Yes, J.D., the problems your family dealt with weren’t hinging on the effectiveness of government. But, millions of families who didn’t have the luxuries you had did teter on the brink of losing their homes or feeding themselves. You (like me) were a chubby kid with an abundance of food and no fear of sleeping on the streets — and I wish you would’ve made that more clear to the potentially-elitist readers who will continue to ignore that entire subset of people for whom government effectiveness and programming TRUMPS “lifestyle”, bootstraps, or attitude. You can’t pull yourself up from your bootstraps if you don’t have the energy to put your shoes on because you haven’t eaten for a week because you were too busy working, or saving the food, for your children.
I mean, I shouldn’t be upset. I should be thrilled that now when I walk into a dinner party, completely unaware of how to utilize the 14 pieces of silverware, that one of the upper-class folks will be able to pat me on the shoulder and say, “It’s okay, we understand silverware is too complex for you, but it’s alright because you never had a dad.”
Despite my resentment for parts of the book — I am happy for the successes Vance has had, and for the record Simon & Schuster — I will gladly sell my soul and reveal all my deepest/darkest secrets for a multi-million dollar book deal.
Craig Wiroll has been on reality television, an Asian elephant rehabilitator, a waterfall repairman, a two-time garlic eating champion, and also worked at Pizza Hut and The White House.
He was allowed to attend college where they eventually gave him a Master of Public Administration degree from Oregon and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from UW-Milwaukee. He lives alone with nobody — oftentimes out of the back of his Subaru.