The relationship J.D. Vance has with his grandmother, Mamaw, may be the most important one of all as we learn in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Mamaw basically raised J.D. Mamaw was tough. She carried a gun and had a tongue that could whip you into shape. She wasn’t easy. She was hard. And you get to know what it was like to live with her when J.D. most needed stability in his life.
In one of the more touching sequences in the book J.D. tells the reader about Middletonian detachment where a disproportionate number of them were trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars and “an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream—a steady wage.” It’s here that we learn about Mamaw’s two gods as Vance tell it:
To understand the significance of this cultural detachment, you must appreciate that much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Breathitt County’s mayor, its health care services, or its famous residents. But I do know this: “Bloody Breathitt” allegedly earned its name because the county filled its World War I draft quote entirely with volunteers—the only county in the entire United States to do so. Nearly a century later, and that’s the factoid about Breathitt that I remember best: It’s the truth that everyone around me ensured I knew. I once interviewed Mamaw for a class project about World War II. After seventy years filled with marriage, children, grandchildren, death, poverty, and triumph, the thing about which Mamaw was unquestionable the proudest and most excited was that she and her family did their part during World War II. We spoke for minutes about everything else; we spoke for hours about war rations, Rosie the Riveter, her dad’s wartime love letters to her mother from the Pacific, and the day “we dropped the bomb.” Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”