Hillbilly Elegy, The Movie

I recently watched the movie, Hillbilly Elegy and loved all  one hour and 56 minutes of the experience. 

Director Ron Howard and the superbly assembled cast nailed it in the sense that the acting was spot on and the message in the story was clear. Book version author, J. D. Vance, (who is also an adoptee-lite raised by his mother’s people), tells the family saga of his Appalachian ancestors and their struggles with raising a family, finding employment and managing sobriety while facing economic, geographical and educational limitations. Both the book and film could have been echoing the story of my ancestors as well. 

Many people of Appalachian descent represent a marginalized community seldom thought about. While so often they are perceived as racist red necks and 2nd Amendment supporters, there is another side. It’s a lifestyle ensnared in a web of ignorance, apathy and helplessness. Finding freedom and enlightenment from these constraints is not easy. These folks do not always make the best choices for coping with their angst due to misinformation and fear.

A big part of the Appalachian culture is putting family first, even when you disagree. You end up defending parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins and even the memories of the dearly departed because family sticks together. While having family ties and respect for your elders are normally good things, Appalachian alliances can become smothering, preventing the younger generations from pursuing their own interests and educations because if they leave the fold, there will be a gap in the cohesiveness of kinfolk. Not only are they more prone to having addictions to substances; they are also addicted to certain ways of life. This creates a sort of “Hillbilly guilt” mechanism for those who wish to venture onward, thus spiraling future adults into another wave of under-educated people who hopelessly believe that sticking with the family community is their only life purpose. 

This guilt or psychological oppression becomes a messy cycle creating little opportunity to expand one’s learning and social connections because they cannot break free. My grandparents’ generation fought their way out of this lattice of seclusion, dysfunction and narrow understandings when the second World War beckoned men to battle in distant areas around the globe and women to assume new jobs outside the home left open by the men who were away. My folks gradually migrated from the hollers of rural Kentucky and eastern Ohio to Cincinnati where there were jobs in industry, retail and entrepreneurship. As a result, my adoptive mother grew up cultured and well-educated. My adoptive dad was able to come of age with improved schooling and among people who valued learning in spite of still being a “poor kid”. My birth father left Kentucky after the navy to find steady, respectable factory employment. My birth mother was brought to this area by her dad after WW II to find a more favorable living and “networking” environment because she had health problems. In some cases, on both sides of my family, even (great) grandparents plus aunts and uncles traversed to the “big city”, which kept the families mostly together.

As a kid in the 1970s, we often piled in the station wagon to take long weekend pilgrimages back to where the old folks were from. Even my modernized and “worldly” parents would never dream of breaking away 100% from their heritage. We paid our respects at the quaint country cemeteries, had picnics and BBQs with the extended cousins who remained on or near original properties, perused old photo albums and listened to the stories of long ago. I treasure the family lore from all sides. I have even taken my kids back to some of those often-visited, beloved “homelands” where I have loving memories of eating my cousin Lois’s mandarin orange and marshmallow Jello salad with fried chicken and green beans, Cousin Elizabeth’s ham and mashed potatoes plus the fresh tomatoes from Bob’s garden, oh, and my other cousin Mildred’s caramels for dessert, (which I still make at Christmas, but they are never as good as hers were).

My modern-day family members support issues involving pro labor and family values, but do not equate these ideals with only accepting one religion or only one societal group as being superior. We cherish the parts of our ancestry about food recipes, family history stories and celebrating members past and present as individuals who loved their country, wanted their kids and grandkids to have more and better than what they had, worked long hours and earned honest pay. While some ancestors from 100+ years ago might regard us contemporary “young’uns” as “hippies”, I’m okay with that. That was then, and here we are now. 

We still love our country, but we don’t want / wear MAGA hats.

We enjoy our fried chicken, but might believe that vegan enchiladas are better.

We embrace some country music but not all because many forms of music have meaningful messages.

We have friends from diverse walks of life because it’s cool and it’s the only way to keep learning.

We respect our parents and other older relatives, but we don’t have to agree with everything they say.

We do not have to agree with every law or policy, but we defend everyone’s right to be their own person and have separate ideas.

We can still be caregivers when needed, but work to find a healthy balance between a toxic, soul-sucking relationship and finding our own paths.

We are not ashamed of from whom and where we come, but we can be ourselves today without fear of reprocussions from one another.

We vote with our hearts and not with dogma.

We are filled with gratitude for the gifts of knowledge, care and other “life-hacks” from the past, yet we feel empowered to think for ourselves, blend what is blendable between old and new ways and share what we can with future generations.

Hillbilly Elegy is not an easy book or movie to get through in many spots. The Vance family’s struggles are not sugar-coated in a Hallmark Channel ending, however, the book and film do an excellent job at good old fashioned story-telling, character building (especially the grandma) and promoting empathy and understanding for Appalachian citizens trying to function in an ever-changing society.

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