Dilapidated old house

Lessons on Legacy From a Hillbilly Family Story

Lessons on Legacy From a Hillbilly Family Story

by Bill High

I just finished reading Hillbilly Elegy. Perhaps you’ve watched the adaptation on Netflix?

Written by J.D. Vance, it’s basically an autobiographical view of what it’s like to grow up in poverty, or perhaps better stated, a poverty mentality. Vance broke out of that lifestyle and eventually landed at Yale Law School. There, the stark contrast led him to question why the roots of poverty prevented so many from ending up at elite institutions.

He describes growing up in a life of constant turmoil. His mother was a drug addict and married multiple times. He bounced from home to home. His grandmother and grandfather were a source of refuge, although a dysfunctional one. They provided stability even though they struggled with their own bouts of alcoholism and ongoing rage.

Oddly, Vance describes one of the drivers for his breakthrough: loyalty. He knew, in particular, that his grandmother loved him and that she’d literally kill anyone who hurt him. That sense of family gave him a guiding light.

I understand Vance’s story. My dad was a hillbilly from the Ozark Mountains.

He left those mountains to go work at the Boeing factory in Wichita. It didn’t stick, so he joined the Army. He probably wasn’t the most compliant guy so he left that. His jobs through the years included running a bar, running a gas station, stints as a roofer, a framer, a welder, a quarry worker, and probably a few more that I never knew about.

Like Vance’s family, his fits of anger were monumental. He was a chain smoker, and by the end of his life he needed a good shot of whiskey to help him breathe and deal with the pain. He died when I was just 12, leaving my mom with six kids to raise on Social Security survivor’s benefits.

I don’t blame him.

As with Vance, God was gracious to us, and I was able to go to college and ultimately to law school. But even as I practiced in one of the biggest law firms in the region, I always still felt a little bit out of place. A hillbilly in a suit.

That never really goes away, but I’ve learned some lessons along the way:

  1. Family provides the roots of who we are.
  2. Find the good in those roots.
  3. Get caught up in the bad, and you’ll drag yourself down.
  4. You can’t change the past.
  5. Our past informs us, but it doesn’t define us.
  6. God defines us.

And that all makes for a good story.



Photo by Ian Williams on Unsplash

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Published February 26, 2021

Topics: Family Legacy | Lessons with Bill

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