VIEWPOINT: Seeing Home in ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

I didn’t read “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance because of its No. 1 ranking on The New York Times’ bestseller list. I read it because of its setting in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt city, where I attended school and worked. I read Vance’s memoir because it tells a story that is very close to home — my home.

I know the author Vance, personally. I have gone out to dinner with Vance and his wife Usha Chilukuri Vance, stayed at his home and met their rowdy dogs. Honestly, I would have read this book out of loyalty even if it were less than stellar.

Luckily, the book is well-written, informative and hits home. Vance’s coming-of-age tale in Middletown deals with particular values, family struggles and issues of cyclic poverty that I am all too familiar with. I am not a hillbilly, a term generally used for white working-class Americans of Scots-Irish descent from the Appalachian regions, nor does my family live below the poverty line. Yet growing up in an area alongside such families has impacted my values and experience. I’ve had the luxury of never having to worry about food on the table, but the same cannot be said for some of my neighbors.

When I came to Georgetown University, I joined the minority of people who ventured outside my town, and the transition has not always been seamless. During a conversation in a New South common room two years ago about a competition with a $100,000 prize, I exclaimed, “You could buy a house with that,” eliciting dumbfounded stares from my floor mates from New England, New Jersey and California.

As someone who comes from an area where you can in fact buy a house for a hundred grand, and sometimes less than that even, I had no idea this was very different from anywhere else in the country. I’ve always considered my background typically American. That is, until these conversations occurred.

This leads me to one of Vance’s most salient themes that I personally grapple with: identity. Ethnically I am German, Irish and English, but my family, spread out across the country, has no lasting traditions from these roots and does not share the strong Appalachian ties of other residents in my hometown.

Even my identity as a Midwesterner and Ohioan has failed me; most people in my area never leave or move to a nearby town due to poverty or strong familial ties. I am grateful my dad is from Cape Girardeau, Mo. and my mom is from Louisville, Ky., since their experiences have contributed to a confidence that I too would leave town one day.

Yet at the same time, I feel like less of an Ohioan because of my own decisions to leave and I struggle when reconciling my humble roots with being an undergraduate at an elite university. I love Georgetown, but as mentioned in “Hillbilly Elegy,” there is something inside me that instinctively sees the elite as “the other.” Those who are less than upper class simultaneously wish they were and detest those who are, which Vance refers to as “primal scorn” in his memoir. Such people are everywhere at Georgetown. Perhaps the hardest part to come to terms with is that I am now is that I am now one of them.

I may not have the money some of my friends do, but on the Hilltop we are peers in every sense of the word. It does not matter who can afford the entire tuition price, or how many of us still struggle even with aid and scholarships. What matters is that we are all Hoyas who are each unique in origin, experience and potential.

I am not the only one who sometimes feels out of place here, but I turn this into pride rather than discomfort. I can bring new perspectives to my daily interactions and provide insight into a singular culture with which I am familiar. Quite frankly, we cannot afford to take for granted the vast diversity of individuals on this campus.

We all have work to get back to, but I encourage everyone to sit and peruse “Hillbilly Elegy.” College is not just classes, but also about learning from one another and about ourselves in the process. As my great-grandmother said, echoing Mark Twain, “Don’t let schoolin’ interfere with your education.”

Claire Nenninger is a junior in the College.

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