National Review contributor J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy is a love story. It begins in the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky known as the “holler” where grandparents are not referred to as grandma and grandpa. They are “Mamaw” (pronounced ma’am-aw) and “Papaw.” “These names belong only to hillbilly grandparents,” writes Vance.
If you were to ask him where he is from, he would say Jackson, Kentucky. But he grew up in Middletown, Ohio when in the 1940s Mamaw and Papaw packed the family up and headed up Route 23—the Hillbilly Highway—for better opportunity in the Rust Belt. “Thanks,” as Vance explains, “to the massive migration from the poorer regions of Appalachia to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, hillbilly values spread widely along with hillbilly people.”
And the situation today back in Jackson, KY? It’s even worse. Vance talks about his cousin Mike, who, after his mother died, immediately thought about selling her house. “I can’t live here, and I can’t leave it untended,” he said. “The drug addicts will ransack it.”