I just finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J.D. Vance, 2016. If you remember Ma and Pa Kettle, the first four episodes are about their eldest son who went to college. This could be based on the story of J.D. Vance (except they don’t have potty mouth). In fact, my own paternal family came from the hills of Kentucky, making their way up Daniel Boone Forest (Lauren and Lee Counties) before moving to Obetz, Ohio. My Great Grandfather left after killing someone to protect his family from the victims family. However, of the people I grew up with, J.D.’s family makes mine look like the Queen’s cousins. While his family was plagued with drugs and alcohol, mine changed the spellings of their last name, for all the children they had from playing around. Of course no one could figure that out since 1. The last name was quite unique but 2. A lot of illiteracy came into play. Why I am including this story here on Ohio Women’s History is that the main character of the book is Mamaw (prn: Ma’am-maw), Bonnie Vance. A woman of exceptional and very unique character (though not for an Appalachian woman), it was because of her hard work and I’d say intelligence that helped her grandson escape poverty and make a name for himself.
Bonnie was a woman who found herself pregnant in high school and ran off to marry her husband. She then learned that this man was a raging alcoholic, yet she stood by him for many years before he finally got his act together. Her own children, including J.D.’s mother continued the genetic trend with alcohol and now drugs as well. J.D. went from home to home, like a foster child, except in his case it was his mother’s succession of boyfriends. Bonnie took him in from time to time and the last three years of his childhood would be spent with her. Over the years, she and her husband worked diligently to make up for what was lost with their own kids and to try and turn the family crisis around.
I didn’t have any relatives or “family” who could match Bonnie with her talk but I did know a lot of Appalachian women whom I truly adored and respected. What endeared me to Bonnie’s story was that she did remind me of Ma Kettle and beneath that rough exterior was a woman who would do whatever it took to make sure that her grandson succeeded in life. As I am also the first in my family to go to college and then get a graduate degree, I can empathize with the struggles of going from welfare and living in the “sticks” or out in the “boondocks,” to living in California and dealing with culture shock from this experience. Appalachian women may have had it rough but these women are what we would call “street smart” today. Though they didn’t live on any streets, they grew up with a sense of loyalty to their kin that most people can’t really relate to in this day and age. J.D. Vance is able to capture this sense of love and respect through an incredible memory that seemed to photograph each scene of his life and then write it down in such a way that you feel you are right there in their living room.
Unless you know exactly when your kin “crossed the pond” and took a look at lady liberty for the first time, then you just might be of Appalachian folk yourself. This is not exactly what we were called when I was growing up; this term is merely a Politically Correct word which established itself among the liberals of today. In fact, the women that are still with me refer to themselves as “hillbilly and proud to call myself that.” There is no shame in being a hillbilly, there is only shame if you choose to get caught up in the chaos and surrender to living out the terms “White Trash.” Of all the survivors of abuse, drugs/alcohol, child molestation, that I have met and had the pleasure to work with, those who rose from the ashes of despair and chose to not allow their trauma to be a part of their lives ever again – except to educate and teach others – all have started from humble beginnings.
I would be proud to have known Bonnie Vance and I chose to put her on this website list of heroic Ohio women of history because of her hard work and dedication to her family. She was a transformed woman of history who brought her family to where they are today. And this, no doubt, will transform the future generations of her family. Hillbilly Elegy should be a must read for children raised in Appalachian communities (via school districts) as it will be a book they can relate to and as such, will give them hope that they too can succeed.