October 10, 2016

A Transatlantic Elegy for an American Hillbilly

I got a tweet from an American friend a while back. “Give this book a try”, he wrote. “It’s a New York Times bestseller and everybody is going on about it. I’d be curious to hear you compare and contrast the author’s experience in poor white America with what it’s like in Scotland’s schemes.” He’s a good brother, so I ordered the book.

Hillbilly Elegy (by J. D. Vance) arrived on my doorstep a few weeks later. I had to Google the word elegy. Apparently, it is derived from the Greek work elegus, which means a song of bereavement. It can be accompanied by a flute as well (if you care for that sort of thing).

Surprising Similarities

I’d never heard of it. And why would I? I live in Niddrie, a small scheme on the east side of Edinburgh in Scotland. A million miles away from New York and further still, socially and culturally, from the Appalachian background of the author’s heritage. A book with at least one word in the title I had to Google and a people I have no real connection to didn’t sound much like great reading. On top of this, a visiting friend, himself a copious reader and reviewer, saw the book and said he felt indifferent about it. So it got left on the kitchen table, and I resigned myself to getting round to it if I ever got a couple of spare hours.

Having read the book, I am now not sure whether this is a book review or an online self-understanding counselling session. You see, to me at least, this is not just a book. It’s not even a poem of bereavement. It is so much more than that. It is a dark lament. A lament of such heartfelt profundity (and, at times, profanity) that it often left me travelling back through the mists of time to dig around in memories I thought had died with the boy I used to be.

Hillbilly Elegy is the story of JD Vance, a self-confessed Scots-Irish hillbilly who, he reminds us, are blessed with:

“Many good traits - an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country - but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk.”


From the off, I felt a deep connection to the book which only intensified as his story progressed. Time and again I would read throwaway lines that resonated at every level. He talks of his early working days with:

“Too many young men immune to hard work.” Coupled with, “A feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”


This could be written about most housing schemes and council estates in the UK. The issue in our land isn’t that there are not enough jobs. There are plenty. Many (not all), young men around us just do not want them. They would rather sign on the dole and collect their social security cheque than subject themselves to any work that they consider beneath them. Many who do find work tend to last no more than a few weeks (maybe months) and leave, fed up of being ‘bossed around’ (their words) and telling themselves that it’s not their fault and their boss ‘has it in for them’. Victim mentality in the schemes is so thick you could stand a spoon in it. All this and we haven’t even entered chapter 1!

Matriarchal Culture

Much of the book centres around his relationship with his grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw), his mum, sister, and some aunties and uncles. Largely, though, it is Mamaw that takes centre stage in this book. Mamaw was the matriarch of the family. The glue. The centre point. The anchor.

There is a Mamaw in nearly every household in the schemes and council estates of the UK. Or at least there was a generation ago. Mamaw, like many Scottish nan’s from the schemes, “loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater disloyalty than class betrayal.” (p.15) In almost every page of the early chapters I found myself wincing as it mirrored the culture of our poorest communities here in the UK. Hearing JD describe how drugs entered into his community, quickly followed by an epidemic of prescription drug addiction, made me sigh in empathy. I only have to walk a few hundred yards from my home to the local pharmacy every morning to see the queues of, quite literally, hundreds of pasty, anaemic, and toothless looking ghosts, all going for their morning prescriptions of Methadone, Valium, anti-psychotics, and all sorts of other tranquillisers they use to anaesthetise themselves toward their slow walk to the grave. The ‘real walking dead’ is what we call them round here.

Similar Politics

As the book moved on to discuss the politics of the older members of the family (largely Democratic), my mind again drifted back to my childhood in a council estate in the North of England. “Papaw was a Democrat because that party protected the working people.” (p.35). Read “Labour” into that sentence and you would have the overwhelming majority of poor voters when I was growing up.

In fact, I remember voting Labour when I turned 18 and my dad being so proud of me. Labour was what you voted around our way. They fought for the working class and the poor. Nobody voted Conservative (Tory). Margaret Thatcher was a hate figure in the North of England and all across Scotland. We called her the ‘milk snatcher’ for bringing an end to free milk in schools (largely my only nutrition as a small boy). We despised her for closing down all the mines and decimating communities all across the North of England and Scotland. So, to vote Tory you were either a posh southerner or a cultural turncoat. Rich people voted Tory, and nobody voted against their own people when I was growing up. I couldn’t have told you one thing about the Labour party when I first voted. That wasn’t the point. ‘We’ (council estate folk) voted Labour, and that was that.

The Working Class

One of the high pressures that JD faced growing up was from the community around him. Back in his grandfather’s day, school wasn’t that high on the agenda when working at ‘Armco’ (a local manufacturing plant that employed thousands) was a given for many young men in the community. School was something to get out of the way until you got a job with the rest of your family.

I remember something similar in the UK back in the early 90’s. Back then, Rover was still a British Car Company and one of the slogans at the local factory was, ‘a job for life’. Nobody got laid off at Rover. And if your dad or uncle or cousin had a job there and were willing to vouch for you, then you were almost assured a job on the factory floor. A decade or so later and that slogan turned out to be a flight of fancy. Thousands were made unemployed and the Germans took over the company, forcing many people out. It meant that many thousands of young people who had a skill on the factory floor, but didn’t really finish high school, were on the scrap heap in their early 20’s and needed some way to re-train or go back and get a decent education. Many never bothered and settled for a life on the dole, doing cash in hand jobs or, as the 90’s progressed, drug dealing to make easy money.

JD considers that what saved him was the encouragement to read at home. He was chided to take education seriously. That is what he credits with saving him in early life. The opposite was true for me. I was beaten for getting good grades. I was made to stand naked in front of strangers if a book was found in my possession (I used to hide them around the house or out in the garden). My step-mother said it was to teach me not ‘to get ideas above my station.’ Maybe she thought she was saving me a life of disappointment. I don’t know. I never asked her. All I saw was the screwed-up face of scorn and hatred as she would hit me with my own school books and tell me I’d never amount to anything in my whole life.

Eerily Similar

Chapter 6 opens with this paragraph.

“One of the questions I loathed, and that adults always asked, was whether I had any brothers or sisters. When you’re a kid, you can’t wave your hand and say, ‘It’s complicated,’ and move on. So, for a time, I walked people through the tangled web of familial relationships I’d grown accustomed to. I had a biological half-brother and half-sister whom I never saw because my biological father had given them up for adoption.”


Again, my own background, and that of many of my family, friends, and neighbours is eerily similar. My dad had children to other women. Some I know about, and some I only heard rumours about. I have no idea of the real truth, but I know of at least four half-siblings somewhere in existence. We are not a family that has deep and meaningful conversations on these issues. Even if we did, I am not sure whether the full truth would ever come out.

I do know this, though. When my dad lived with the woman who brought me up for the first 11 or 12 years of my life, I, along with my sister (real), were baggage that she patently did not want. We were barely tolerated. When they had their own children, they became the favourites and we were discarded and treated like second-class citizens at every opportunity. They got the new clothes. They got the best food. They got the sweets and the affection. They got to stay up late.

We got battered and beaten and abused and mocked and humiliated. We got to fight for her and her drunken friends, with the winner being spared a beating by an adult. And as I was growing up, I hated those step-siblings. With a passion. With a murderous vengeance. They were merely an extension of her and her evil brutality. They took great delight in lying to their mother about things we had done wrong so we could be tortured some more. It was only years later, as an adult, that I reflected that those poor children were as much abused as we were. But for years, when asked if I had any siblings, I would just say no. I am a single child. It was just easier than having to explain the mess that was my so-called family life.


It’s not until page 87 that JD makes his first mention of religion. He asked Mamaw if God exists, and she assured him that he did and that he was loved. Listen to how JD eloquently puts it.

“I needed assurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.”


He goes on to talk about his brief, but manic, dance with a particularly charismatic strain of evangelical Christianity. The most painful line comes on page 96: “My new faith put me on the lookout for heretics. Good friends who interpreted parts of the Bible differently were bad influences.” I felt desperate for him at this point, as he seemed trapped in a religious institution that preached morality and divided the world into what was satanic and what was holy. If anything, it reminded me of the need to preach and teach the Bible in our churches and not our own cultural preferences and favourite theological positions.


In chapter 7, we are introduced to the split personality of the hillbilly culture when it came to the issue of women. His Papaw reminds him that, “the measure of a man is how he treats the women in his family” (p.108). And yet this man had abused the women in his family over many years. He does echo the culture of many working-class UK males in this part of the book. We can slap our own woman, but if anybody even looks at them funny then they will be taken outside and buried in the car park.

My dad aside, I never saw a woman get treated with much respect during my whole childhood. They were beaten, cheated on, spat on, sexually abused, and even, in some cases, murdered. The neighbourhood I grew up in would ring with the screams and shouts of couples smashing the house, and themselves, to pieces on a Friday night after a few drinks. But, if the police went round, it wouldn’t matter if the woman’s face was half hanging off, she stood by her man. Try to tell her that she was the victim of spousal abuse and she would have laughed in your face (and probably punched you for good measure).


His battles with his mother and her various addictions is nothing short of heart-breaking. Being moved from pillar to post left him, in his own words, “with a sense of being on guard.” (p.123) What he means is that wherever he stayed, he was always uneasy. Like whenever he found some stability at Mamaw’s or, later in life with his future wife, he was always expecting it to all come crashing down around his ears. Years of moving from children’s home to foster-carer left me with the same feeling. Years moving around on the streets meant that when I finally did find a home, with an older couple from a church I was converted in, I didn’t unpack my bag for six months and I slept on the floor for the first year so I wouldn’t get too comfortable. The uneasy feeling of why complete strangers would help me took me a long time to get over, and I see it in the eyes of houseguests now who wonder why we, as a family, would allow complete train-wrecks to come and share in our lives.

It is when JD forays into the world of politics and poverty that the bells of trans-cultural recognition really begin to chime loud and clear. Listen to how, over time, he and Mamaw begin to view their fellow working class with mistrust.

“Most of us were struggling to get by, but we made do, worked hard, and hoped for a better life. But a large majority was content to live off the dole. Every two weeks I’d get a small pay-check and notice the line where federal and state income taxes were deducted from my wages. At least as often, our drug addict neighbour would buy T-bone steaks, which I was too poor to buy myself and was forced by Uncle Sam to buy for someone else.”


Because of this, JD remains convinced that the party of the working man—the Democrats—lost millions of votes from previously a loyal people to the Republican Party. Something that would have been unthinkable just a generation before! One of the reasons for this, he says, was the perception that the government was,

“Payin people who are on welfare today doing nothing. They’re laughing at ‘our’ society! And we’re all hard workin people and we’re getting laughed at for workin everyday.”


The same has happened to a generation of Labour voters. We, who voted labour all of our lives out of blind loyalty to our families, are turning aside in droves. Because we can’t stomach voting Tory we are turning to fringe parties like UKIP (ironically more Tory than the Tories) because we are fed up of being treated like idiots by the government.

We have people on our scheme who have more disposable income than I do and yet they see me as ‘rich’ because I work for a living and own my own house. These same people take two holidays abroad a year, have the latest gadgets and giant flatscreen TV’s, and somehow still feel like they are owed by the system. Where the working poor in America were left high and dry when factories and industries shut down, leaving ghost towns, the working poor in the UK were left in the same predicament when the mining industry collapsed and the manufacturing industry went to the wall.

Largely, JD claims,“our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state.” (p.144) And, you know what? It’s hard not to disagree with him from a UK perspective. Five generations of this have left us in a right mess. But to question it, to even bring it up in conversation, has us labelled as ‘right wing’ or ‘uncaring’ when, in fact, most of us who have a problem are, historically anyway, Labour through and through. But because our party will not listen to us anymore, we are leaving in our hundreds of thousands, and all the while the Labour Party is wondering why they are dead in Scotland and are dying across their historical Northern English heartlands.

“Of all the white working class struggles, I knew even as a child, that there were two separate setoff mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”


Sad Realities

Sadly, in my scheme anyway, that older generation has largely gone. All that is left now are the angry and distrustful who blame everybody and everything for all their (supposed) woes. The Mamaw’s of the schemes are just as likely to dole out Valium and Cannabis as they are words of wisdom these days, I am afraid. The whole problem is further compounded, in JD’s mind, by the wholesale mistrust of the media and the current political status quo.

“We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society . . . if you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?”


He just summed up my whole generation (and those following) in a paragraph. It gets worse. JD admits: “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.” (p.194) Throw in the word immigrants and you get a picture of the average opinion in schemes in our day.

The bigger problem is that the wider society just cannot see the problem. Although, it became startlingly clear in our recent Brexit vote (not to mention the election of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president in 2016) when large swathes of historical, working class Labour voters went against the party to carry a surprise vote to leave the European Union. The whole media uprising the next day concentrated on the racist, homophobic, xenophobic North of England (Scotland voted to stay, largely because the scheme vote stayed at home).

People from council estates and working-class families were depicted as uneducated oiks by a largely sneering, elitist media distraught that we would vote against the status quo. They put the vote down to racism (true in certain cases) instead of hearing the fact that we are sick of being ordered what to think and how to behave by corrupt officials, many of whom we have never voted for and have no control over.

The ‘dumb Northerner’ narrative seems to work better than facing the hard truths that we feel betrayed by politicians to whom we once gave our unswerving and unquestioning allegiance.

Final Sting

The real sting in the tail of this book comes in the final chapters, as JD assesses his life and the influences of his family and cultural heritage. His discussion on ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) had me reaching for Google once again as I took the ACE test online to find out my score and to see if I qualified as somebody who has faced acute childhood trauma. I scored 9/10 (the author scored six, his aunt seven). It made for depressing, if unsurprising, reading. His scores, and my own, made me revisit old questions of nurture and nature.

“How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children?”


Regardless of where you come down on this, I agree with JD, who states quite unequivocally, that,

“No person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card.”


We have to take some responsibility for how we behave and act as adults. That much is clear. At this point in the book, I found my mind wandering again. Back to the boy I once was. Locked up in a cupboard. Frightened and alone. Starving, emaciated, and without a friend in the world. I didn’t have the Mamaw that JD had. If I had, then maybe I wouldn’t have gone to prison. Maybe I wouldn’t have wasted 10 years of my life, bitter and bent on a self-destructive path.

But I didn’t have a Mamaw. I didn’t even have a mother. I didn’t have a single adult in my life who told me that they loved me. I’ve never heard those words from a parent. I never will. This book made me wonder about it again. It made me pine for a life I will never have. To hear words I will never hear. The best I can do is watch my wife embrace our children and tell them how much she loves them. I catch myself watching her sometimes with them and wondering what it feels like to be loved like that.

Of course, my wife loves me. My girls love me. But it’s not the same, is it? To feel a parent’s love must be a truly wonderful thing. The real pain comes as I watch the children in my neighbourhood go through the same thing. Then I think of it multiplied the nation over, the world over. It adds up to a lot of pain. It adds up to a lot of silence. It adds up to a lot of holes in a lot of young hearts.

Toward the end he hints at rediscovering the Christian faith he lost all those years ago. He lets it hang tantalisingly and never revisits it. Just a sentence lost among the words of his book. But I noticed it. I find myself hoping that JD finds the true peace that knowing Jesus brings. It’s greater than the love of a wife and children. It’s a deep, soul-stirring peace that cannot be adequately expressed in words.

You see, I am alive today because of Jesus. My wife has not been beaten, shouted at, or abused. My children have not been neglected or maltreated. They know security and they know affirmation. They know all of these things because Jesus saved my soul almost 20 years ago. Without him I would be just another bum, living on the streets, drugged up to the eyeballs, blaming my home life, the world, the government, and the rich for all of my problems and woes. Instead, I have accepted the imperfections of our world (and my upbringing) and have handed myself completely over to the One who says He loves me. Often, I don’t believe him. Often, I have my own sense of being on guard in case He withdraws that love from one so undeserving. And I fight with all my might to believe the truth that I am His forever.

This book will stay with me for a long time, but not for the reasons many others love (or loathe) it. Haunting and mesmerising. You may not agree with his politics or his application of social sciences, but this is an absolute monster of a book.

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