Hillbilly Elegy – The American Dream

Today’s offering is not a self-help book but in typical Sheryl-fashion, I found threads that connect.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance is a deeply authentic, heartbreaking book… even though our scribe has risen above so much of the muck and mire. In fact, he doesn’t consider the muck and mire to be all that mucky or mire-y. He loves his roots and the people who inhabited his young life. Even the ones who hurt him.

This is no easy read, though it is written with such a deft hand that you’ll think so. Vance is an excellent storyteller.

When I first heard about the book, I didn’t rush out to buy it. It wasn’t until I saw this movie trailer that I had to backtrack and see what I’d missed:

And let me tell you what happened when I watched it…

I wept.

Why? Well, lemme tell ya.

I have to go back 20+ years, to my first marriage. David’s parents were salt-of-the-earth people who were always and forever struggling financially. They didn’t have a lot but what they did have, they shared. My former mother-in-law’s parents (Grandma & Grandpa Smith) were mining people, from the midwest, and deeply religious. All of them were good, good people and I loved them.

I also lived with David’s family, off-and-on, because (not surprisingly) we struggled. They opened their hearts and home to us and we walked right through that door – over and over again. Looking back, I can say with clarity that I adapted and become more like them than my own parents.

In the movie trailer (as shown above) Mawma (as played by Glenn Close) lacks the softness of Grandma Smith, but everything else is spot on. I was reminded of how much I miss them… but also… I was reminded OF THEM. I thought of the mining stories Grandpa Smith told and how proud he seemed, in spite of how terrible the work was.

It was clear, as I watched that trailer, the Smiths were hillbillies. And to listen to them tell their stories, they wanted what all of us were raised to want: The American Dream. And so did their children, and their children’s children.

I became one of them.

I was never a hillbilly, of course… but I am a very good chameleon. Maybe it’s because I’m an empath or perhaps (and more likely) because I’ve often suppressed my own personality to fit in <<< “likely” because I never valued myself or at least, believed I was too flawed to ever have the good things in life, like owning my own home. Played out nicely, as I never have. But, I digress.

And so, even though I hadn’t initially wanted to read this book, after seeing the trailer, I couldn’t get to the bookstore quick enough!

It is, as everyone knows by now, a NYTimes Bestseller. The first six or so pages are filled with accolades. It’s truly excellent!

Still, you may be wondering…

What does it have to do with self-help?


Because… in my world… at least my little corner of the internet… I do NOT have all the answers. Some days, I have only questions. Other days, I just want to share what I’m thinking… or my photos… or nothing special at all. Or things that are very special.

This book is special.

It begins with poverty, drug and child abuse, abandonment, loneliness, and hopelessness. It shows what can happen with the anvil of family legacy hangs around your neck.

It also touches on family, community and relationships, honor, beliefs, education, and hope – very self-help-y, if you ask me.

But most of all, it shows what can happen when one person refuses to let the circumstance of his birth have the final say on where he ends.

Here is Vance’s most-excellent Ted Talk. Also, well worth your time.

PS: I would be remiss not to talk about how this book… which was never meant to be political … became political. It is – simply – because there is a swath of Americans who have felt unseen and unheard. No editorial on it… just the reality.

(2022 Addendum: I would be further remiss not to mention that JD Vance has gone on to join the political theatre. Should you wish to read more about that, here’s an article from The Washington Post.)


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