It’s fitting that the conclusion to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy begins with a story about Christmas. An elegy is a poem or a commemoration for the dead. Not to be confused with a eulogy, which is a statement made at a funeral, an elegy is more a lament, a sorrowful but respectful piece of art spoken at any time about the dead. In its craftedness, perhaps there’s a bit of a warning and a plea to it, too. Vance’s portrayal of hillbillies is about a dying people. But his Christmas story at the end of the book is about his resurrection from near destruction to the American Dream. He’s buying Christmas presents for kids like him: poor, without much hope, yearning for Christmas to give them a glimpse of security and abundance.
He uses Christmas as a prime example of the differences between hillbillies and “the other Americans,” for lack of a better term. During all the preceding chapters, Vance struggles to put his finger on how he’s different, but he knows he is. Is it because he’s poorer than his law school colleagues? Is it because his mom is a drug addict and he is raised mostly by his grandparents? Is it because of his Kentucky roots? Is he “normal” or are “they”? However he defines the differences, at Christmas, they become pronounced. Families like the Vances’ worry about presenting a “nice Christmas,” one that would reassure kids that everything is okay, we’re not as bad off as neighbors, one that shows off the parents’ ability to provide regardless of challenges the rest of the year. And yet, in the very striving for a “nice Christmas,” a Christmas like those of higher classes, what keeps them from succeeding is all the more apparent, and often drive the families further into debt, to drinking more, or being more available at home.
“Though we sing the praises of social mobility, it has its downsides. The term necessarily implies a sort of movement – to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” JD Vance begins the book with a confession that he didn’t write it because he did something extraordinary, but because he transformed. It isn’t who he becomes that’s the story so much as how he changes. He becomes something other than who he was, who he was expected to have become. In some ways he exceeds expectations, but in other ways, he strays from them. His choices involve distancing himself from the habits of his people. He chooses to better himself for his own sake. He chooses not to complain but to overcome. “Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers…. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
Vance says he doesn’t have a solution to the “problem” of hillbillies. “Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” No one person can solve that, if there even is a solution. He points to what is helpful, or, as his friend puts it, “puts a thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.” Policies that keep families together, for one thing, and not at the mercy of a child welfare system that does more harm than good. But most of all, people to support one kid at a time, who, like JD, chooses to make and keep high expectations for himself. He may not have a solution, but he certainly DOES something by writing the story of his 31 years truthfully, with research into the structures at work in his life, and by giving credence to forces that raise him up to who he is and who he is becoming.
The book may be a memoir, but it is not the last word. JD Vance has generated controversy. In a review of the book in the New Republic, November 17, 2016, Sarah Jones writes, “don’t emulate Vance in your rage. Give the white working class the progressive populism it needs to survive, and invest in the areas the Democratic Party has neglected. Remember that bootstraps are for people with boots. And elegies are no use to the living.” She and Vance both point out that hillbillies are traditionally Democratic. So, who’s failing them? To whom is the anger directed? The conservatives Vance cites as claiming hillbillies as their constituents or the Democrats? With Appalachian roots herself, Sarah Jones does not agree that hillbillies are the cause of their own undoing, nor will they be the source of their own salvation. She has faith in a democratic (not a Trump) system to ensure people have boots to pull up. We’ll soon find out if there’s a winner in this debate, come a new presidency and a new year.