With pundits coast to coast having already commented on the book, I decided to ask the opinion of a Hillbilly friend from Springfield.
It would be unwise to relate all the stories I’ve heard over the past 30 years that have established, in my mind, Mark Leeth’s Hillbilly credentials. But here are a few resume-builders.
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He learned to read at as a preschooler by sitting in his Grandma Brown’s lap in Beaver’s Ridge, Pike County, Ohio, as she moved her fingers under the Bible passages she read every morning. Leeth said he believes that were it not for her, “I would have ended up in prison.”
That echoes Vance’s childhood memories from Jackson, Ky.: “I remember sitting in Mamaw Blanton’s lap as she read Bible stories aloud before the sun came up,” and his judgment that, in his chaotic youth, his grandmother provided him with, “a safe place and loving embrace if ever I needed it.”
Vance and Leeth also share an abiding respect for an early version of hill justice, where, by necessity, people took care of matters that an entity they call “the law” wasn’t around to deal with.
Leeth said in an approving tone that thieves “just disappeared.”
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Vance also lauds the Blanton men, his relatives in “Bloody Breathitt County” as “enforcers of Hillbilly justice,” which “to me … was the very best kind.”
The final piece I’ll cite from Leeth’s Hillbilly resume is the “polite stabbing” he was involved in at a bar near what used to be called Standpipe Hill in Springfield. From his days growing up in this city’s Lane Addition, Leeth was never one to back down from a fight. That night, he was thankful to be tangling with another Hillbilly.
After the man had stabbed Leeth once in the chest, he asked whether once was enough or if he was going to have to stab him a second time.
When Leeth responded that, no, once had been enough, this odd bit of Hillbilly etiquette allowed peace to be restored without the law getting involved.
During our talk, Leeth offered two essential criticisms of “Hillbilly Elegy.”
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One is that, “he doesn’t say enough about the woods. There’s nothing I like better than going out squirrel hunting and arguing about whose dog is best.”
Not long ago I walked with him in a wooded and wild area near his home, just south of Pitchin, and he seemed at home with all around him.
In Vance’s defense, he does call the hills near Jackson “unfathomably beautiful.”
Leeth’s second criticism is that, “what (Vance) grew up in was not the true Appalachian culture, it was an offshoot of it. When you break (Appalachian) people away from the land, that’s what happens to them.”
To me, the criticism is explained by the difference in the two men’s ages: At 33, Vance is 28 years younger than Leeth, the span of a generation in which the displaced Appalachian culture had a chance to corrode as the Midwest was earning a reputation as a Rust Belt.
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However the sequence of breaking away is explained, Leeth wouldn’t disagree with Vance’s key observation: “We hill people aren’t doing very well.”
Vance, who, after a stint in the Marines graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School, calls some scholarly studies of what’s happened “insightful.” But he says they also are ultimately unhelpful in answering the questions that plague him about what he saw while growing up.
“Why didn’t our neighbor leave that abusive man? Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why couldn’t she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter? Why were all these things happening not just to our neighbor but to my mom?” Vance writes.
“Our elegy is a sociological one,” Vance says, “but it also about psychology and community and culture and faith,” particularly a lost faith in the once strong hill work ethic that helped people work their way out of difficult situations.
All this reminded me of words I repeatedly read about Ohio when our already diminished Rust Belt economy was brought to its knees in 2008 as the result of the burst of the real estate bubble and near collapse of the nation’s financial system.
George Zeller, whom I met at Wittenberg in the early ’70s as a student and who returned as a sociology professor, by 2008 had leveraged his skills in statistics and analysis into a job studying the economic indicators of the brutal recession.
His regular reports, used by many news outlets, rated counties in this area among the hardest hit, and each report included words so often missing from economic analysis: that the statistics painted a picture not just of economic decline but of increased human suffering — the same sort of suffering Vance speaks to in “Hillbilly Elegy.”
After the presidential election, when I visited my brother in Illinois and talked with his blue state friends who seemed shocked that Ohio could vote for Trump, I used the words “unaddressed hurt” to describe it — an unaddressed hurt that Vance’s book argues has corroded our culture as well as our economy.
Although the president’s distinct style has dominated most of the news coverage since the election, Vance’s speaking tour gives a chance for those of us who live in Springtucky, Middletucky and every other “tucky” to reflect about what a few might do to address cultural crises that continue to corrode our communities.