One of my favorite books from the past few years is “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance.
Given my position as Judge, I see so many children and families who are impacted by drug and alcohol addiction. Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how the author, J.D. Vance, was raised in a chaotic household with a mother who struggled with an addiction to Opiates. Mr. Vance would bounce back and forth between his mother’s house and his grandmother’s house due to his mom’s addiction.
The family lived in southern Ohio, but their roots were in the Eastern Kentucky coal mining region. The grandparents had left Kentucky seeking a better life in Ohio before Mr. Vance was born.
Along with sharing the chaos in his family growing up, Mr. Vance shared stories of him getting into trouble, doing poorly in school, etc. His grandmother constantly pushed him and reminded him that he had to get an education because that was his way “out” of the struggles that he was being raised in. It was also clear that his grandmother, who had faults of her own (she had once set the grandfather on fire for coming home drunk — again — one night), was the one constant source of love and support for Mr. Vance.
In my position as a Judge, I see so many kids who just have 1 adult in their life who is that constant source of love and encouragement — and unfortunately I also see kids who don’t have that.
Mr. Vance joined the Marines out of high school, then earned a degree from Ohio State University and a law degree from Yale after that. The book shares his struggle to “fit in” while at Yale given his upbringing and his family’s Appalachian roots.
I often feel that other parts of our Country look down upon or ridicule those of us who are raised or live in Appalachia which irritates me because I feel like I know the people of our region pretty well and I know how caring, giving, and kind the people of our region are. We are not the backwoods hillbillies as we are often portrayed on TV, books and films.
Mr. Vance’s book has received some criticism saying that it is not a true depiction of Appalachia and that he simplifies his story too much. I totally disagree with those who say it’s not representative of our region because so many families have been impacted in some way by either the Opioid epidemic or meth epidemic. His story is a reminder that we need to either be the one constant support for a child — whether it is a child in our family, a child we know through school, church or a child down the street.
Also, his story is one of hope. It’s one example for kids living in situations like he was that you can use education and/or the military to improve your situation, but it takes determination and hard work. For those kids who do strive to break out of generational poverty and chaos, this book shares the challenges that many are confronted with by those outside of our region: the belief from outsiders that the region is full of people who are not very smart or who should be “pitied” because of their upbringing.
I appreciate Mr. Vance’s honesty about his story and his family’s story and the fact he has moved back to Ohio from California in an effort to help the people of this region. It is obvious that he loves the people of the Appalachian region and sees the potential of the people in our region. Like Mr. Vance — I am proud to be from the Appalachian region and I am proud to continue to live here and raise my kids here. This is a special region and, like Mr. Vance, I want the people of our region to succeed.
Give this book a read. I think you may be able to relate to Mr. Vance or his family like I did.
As a side note, the book was made into a movie and is currently on Netflix. I think the movie is very well done and Glenn Close does an incredible job portraying Mr. Vance’s Mamaw.
-Ken Bailey, Greene County General Session and Juvenile Court Judge