Scotch-Irish is somewhat of a misnomer, as people who claim the ancestry have little to no Scottish blood. They’re primarily folks who left England and resettled in Northern Ireland for religious freedom in the 17th century, then left Ireland in the 18th and early 19th century in search of – yet again – religious freedom (Presbyterian, if you’re curious). In America they identified as Irish until the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s caused another wave of immigration; they added the “Scotch” to distinguish themselves from the incoming Catholics.
This is my father’s side of the family, and I have to say that J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy felt familiar. You might find Irish and Native a strange mix but it’s fairly common. If you want to play amateur psychologist while also wallowing in dreadful stereotypes, it’s because these are two sets of neuroses subconsciously knowing they’re a perfect match. Decades of codependent relationships and hard drinking lead to love, is what I’m saying, skin color be damned. Vance’s memoir works because it’s a classic rags to riches story (or abject poverty to Ivy League education and financial and familial stability, if you prefer). Vance’s family members are quick to violently defend anyone who crosses them, and Vance loves that about them. The tone as he describes their violent tempers and aggressive acts is a bit celebratory, but it’s tempered by how hard it is to grow up inside that tempest.
If this was just the memoir of a poor boy who made good, carried along by the colorful, broken members of his family who set him up for success despite their best efforts to drag him down to the cesspool of failure that infects them all, it might have been 2016’s Glass Castle, or All Over But the Shoutin’. But in an election year like no other, many (including me) have pointed to Hillbilly Elegy for insight into how some voters made the choices they did.
This is a lot of pressure for an author to bear. I’ve read reviews and comments that have baffled me, as though the person hate-read the book just so they could go online and tell the Vance family and anyone like them to fuck themselves sideways.
Personally, I loved the book. It didn’t strike me as an apology for anything, only as a guy talking about himself, his family, his community, and offering a bit of socio-economic critique of same. Of course he was also talking about my father’s people, so maybe I’m a little more sympathetic than most.
My father’s family lived in central New York rather than Appalachia, but… drunken rages and beatings? Check. Crippling self-esteem issues? Check. Hostility to any and all things in authority? Check. Hostile dry drunks, drug addicts, run-ins with the law, and thinking you’re the smartest guy in the room despite constant self-sabotage? Cheh-heh-heh-heck.
And oh, the politics of it all.
Ultimately, though, Vance’s memoir proves that you can succeed despite being dealt a hand which isn’t the best. As long as just a few family members have held their personal demons at bay long enough to guide you.