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Hillbilly Elegy

A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

By J.D. Vance
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Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy (2016) is an autobiographical walk through the life of a man who grew up in an impoverished neighborhood of Middletown, Ohio. These blinks tell the story of a boy who, despite a turbulent childhood, beat the odds and pulled himself out of poverty.

Key idea 1 of 8

J.D.’s grandparents grew up as middle-class “hillbillies” – an option that no longer exists today.

J.D. Vance was born a hillbilly. He grew up poor in an Ohio steel town that had been bled dry of both its jobs and its hope. That’s why he identifies with millions of working-class white Americans of Scottish and Irish descent – people who seldom have college degrees and who experience poverty as a family tradition.

But to truly understand this lineage, we need to go back to the lives of his grandparents. They were hillbillies too, and their experience was typical of this group.

Known endearingly as Mamaw and Papaw, they were born around 1930 in Jackson, Kentucky. They were hill people or hillbillies, as residents of the Appalachian Mountains are called – sometimes derogatorily.

In search of work, they left Kentucky for Middletown, Ohio where Papaw landed a job at Armco, a major steel company. And he wasn’t the only one. During the 1950s, Armco aggressively recruited Kentuckians, flooding Ohio’s towns and cities with people like J.D.’s grandparents.

This factory job allowed the couple to retire comfortably middle class. But today, the situation for hillbillies is much different. Towns like Jackson, Kentucky have been devastated by poverty.

As a result, in many instances, hill people are synonymous with “poor people.” Practically a third of Jackson is impoverished, including half of its children. Although the public schools are in such disrepair that the state has seized control of them, local parents have no choice but to enroll their children in high schools that send barely any students to college.

The people of Jackson are also in generally poor physical health. A 2009 ABC news documentary on Appalachian America reported that young kids suffer painful dental problems, often caused by overconsumption of sugary soft drinks.

But while Jackson is a prime example of Appalachian poverty, this plight is common to cities and towns across the region, which have been drained by the outsourcing of jobs. In the blinks that follow, you’ll learn how this industrial shift affected the personal lives of the hillbillies who call Appalachia home.

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