About Hillbilly Elegy & Those Who Champion Us


Photo by Sue Counts

Photo by Sue Counts

I’ve been reading the book that everyone was talking about six months ago – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It has been touted as an insightful book about Appalachia and more specifically about the people who voted Donald Trump into office.

It’s not really either of those things. When Vance says he’s from Appalachia what he means is that his people are from Kentucky, which is unquestionably Appalachia. But he grew up in Ohio, which to people who are Appalachian, not Appalachia.

When my Uncle Lynn moved off to Ohio, all my daddy’s people said that Uncle Lynn had “Moved Off Up North.” For the uninitiated “Moving off Up North” is a cardinal sin. Once a fellow moves off up North, nobody in Kentucky or Tennessee or West Virginia or even Georgia really trusts that man’s judgment any longer. Ever since I moved to Oregon, my Georgia friends have regarded me as a “Pinko Commie Hippie” who probably smokes pot and doesn’t admit to it. (For the record, I have never smoked pot, but it was offered to me a great deal more times in Georgia than it has been here in Oregon).

I am befuddled as to how Vance became the spokesman for Appalachian or rural voters. He is neither. His memoir, while well-crafted, takes a hard-right turn about two-thirds of the way in and, at least for those of us who make a study out of writing, loses its strength – which was in its narrative voice. His mistake is a common one among Millennial writers, in my observations, which is that he sees the world through the very narrow periscope of his own personal experiences. We all do this, of course, but many of us learned early on that our life experiences should not become the basis for forming political policy. It is his life experiences that inform Vance’s political views. At the end of the day, even a bad day, Vance is still a white male and that puts him into an elite class and way of thinking. He shouldn’t feel bad about that, but he should guard against the inherent arrogance of such a position and he fails to do the latter.


But enough with all of that. The true strength of Vance’s book has nothing to do with his political viewpoints – it has to do with his grandparents.  Vance’s grandparents were his greatest champions. Vance’s mom had addiction problems – to men, drugs and booze. She was not only downright negligent, she was abusive. Time after time, Vance recount the ways in which his grandparents intervened into his life and rescued him. When forced to choose between their daughter or their grandchildren, they always chose their grandchildren. Whatever mistakes they had made with Vance’s mom were far too gone to change.

Like most neglected and abused children, Vance felt responsible for his mother. Felt like he was her caretaker instead of her being his, because as he tells it, Vance was more of an adult as a young boy than his mother was as a grown woman. This is a common problem that spans far beyond Appalachia and poor families. There are plenty of people who have grown up in homes with parents who were every bit as neglectful and abusive as Vance’s mother. Some make it out. Many do not. Those who survive best do so because, like Vance, they have a safe harbor to retreat to and a champion or two in their corner.

For Vance that was his grandparents. For others it may be a teacher or a pastor or a coach.

My friend Michael Morris has written a great deal about the influence of his own grandparents. In this oped for the LA Times, Morris notes that 6.7 million children are being raised by grandparents. That number continues to climb.

I have written about the close relationship I had with my father’s mother. Granny Leona always provided me with shelter from the storm that was my later childhood. She did that for my cousins, too. My East Tennessee grandmother and Vance’s Kentucky-raised grandmother did not share many attributes in common other than both were entirely devoted to their grandchildren.

Every child needs a protector and every adult needs someone to champion them.

Vance’s grandparents were his protectors and his champions.

Granny Leona was a crippled woman and too frail to be much of a physical protector but she championed us kids always.

I have been blessed with many who have championed me throughout my life, many who continue to champion me.

It seems to me that Vance missed an opportunity in his writings to advocate for more legal rights for grandparents and for more support for those who are raising their children’s children.

But we miss opportunities daily to champion those around us. Or at least I know I do. I regret that I have often failed to speak affirmation into the lives of others when I had opportunity to, or the times I failed to champion those who needed an advocate.

Linda & Me. MOR (2)

In addition to  Granny Leona, one of the biggest champions throughout my life has been my sister. Regular readers to the blog know the stories of the woman I refer to here as Sister Tater. Last week, Sister Tater was diagnosed with breast cancer. She could use some champions in her life right now. In particular, she could use some prayer champions. We don’t have many details right now but should you be inclined to pray, her name is Linda.

And I’m giving away my copy of Hillbilly Elegy. If you’d like a chance to win this copy, leave your name below. Vance’s story is remarkable in no small part because of the grandparents who championed him.

Who championed you?

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of MOTHER OF RAIN, BURDY and the forthcoming CHRISTIAN BEND (Mercer University Press).

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.


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