In the world of J.D. Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, “Grandfather” is “Papaw,” rhyming with “pat” and “paw”, and “Grandmother” is “Mamaw,” rhyming with “Papaw.” That’s likely not the only difference between his grandmother and yours.
At age 12 she shot and nearly killed a thief – she was in fact about to do so when stopped – and not for the last time. She had a foul mouth, a violent temper, and a dangerously irritable sense of honor. She taught her grandson how to take a punch – and how to deliver one with eye-popping effect. She embodied in her singular person the myriad dysfunctional features of the deeply ingrained culture that held him and all his fellow hillbillies so tightly in its embrace.
But she also sensed that he was the one of them who could break free and do something with his life. So, she provided a safe harbor for him from the chaos of his mother’s – her own daughter’s – destructively erratic behavior. She gave him rock-solid advice, perspective, encouragement. She indeed infused in him the culture that held him close. But she was also the guiding spirit and ever-present support for his escape. She ignited in him the hope that he could do more. She armed him with much that would prove essential to him in his young manhood, and she lit the way for him onto the beginnings of his long journey out and beyond.
And he did escape, with, in fact, remarkable success. He wisely attributes this to a number of key family members and friends, who you will grow to know and admire almost as he does. But Mamaw – her lessons, her support, her inspiration; her personification of both his heritage and his personal promise – is always there, behind everything.
But why, he still wants to know, like the survivor of a fatal trauma, did he make it, and not the others? Indeed, did he in fact escape, or did he bring the chaos with him, on yet another of its many surreptitious migrations?
This book is not the story of the author’s background, nor of his personally arduous and dramatic path to the American dream, as evocatively told as those tales are in this wonderful book. It is best seen as the framework for examining the questions he poses throughout, and the personal conclusions and cultural insights he is uniquely able to draw from them.
I’ll let you learn what those are on your own – as you do, you will find yourself wonderfully immersed in this peculiarly many-sided American story, and richly rewarded as you travel alongside the author during his simple, engrossing telling of it. I will say, though, that one of the great contributions of this book is that it directs the answers to problems – whether ours, or those of our families and our communities – to ourselves. And as problematic as that can often be, there yet is really no place like home. Welcome home, then, to this superb book, and enjoy.
Here’s hoping that all of you are enjoying this Thanksgiving weekend in the warmly embracing company of your own family and friends!