I just completed J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It’s a good read, especially if you want to glean an understanding (Does anyone think our country could use more empathy these days?) of the plight of poor whites in greater Appalachia.
Listening to a panel of authors on CBS’ Face the Nation on New Year’s Day, I had pledged to read this book and a couple of others: Diane Guerrero’s In the Country We Love: My Family Divided and Amani Al-Khatahtbeh’s Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. Vance’s book was the first of these I came across in the new books section at Mount Royal library branch.
Beyond its relevance to the divisions in our country today, Hillbilly Elegy gave me a lot to think about regarding my own experiences growing up and living my young adult years in West Virginia. I – thankfully -- grew up in a much, much more stable family than J.D. Vance. I didn’t experience divorce, multiple fathers, a drug-addicted mother, extreme neglect, and poverty during my childhood.
But I reported on the effects of such family instability spilling over, often messily, into communities during the first five years of my journalism career covering eight rural counties around Parkersburg, W.Va. I was perplexed at some of the stupid, violent, even murderous acts otherwise calm and reasoned people committed. And I had heard of cases where someone who was defending their family’s honor – that Hillbilly Code of Honor – wouldn’t be convicted.
I left my home state in 1989. My husband, son and I still travel back annually to visit my Mom and cousins. I’m proud of my Appalachian heritage. Sometimes I long to return and just stay in the home my mother and father built on that acre of former farmland up a hollow. It would be foolish to move my son and husband from a state that’s always near the top of the rankings on education, health, economics, environment and opportunities to a state that’s always near the bottom. And I wish that wasn’t so.