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by William H. Benson

December 29, 2016

     “Mountain dew” is a slang word for moonshine. The extensive marketing for the soft drink of the same name first appeared fifty years ago, in the mid-1960’s. The cartoon advertisement featured a hillbilly who wore a floppy hat, sported an unkempt beard, smiled a toothless grin, had shaggy hair, and wore ragged shirt and pants. No shoes.

     On occasion he would lift a brown jug to his lips and drink deep of his “mountain dew, and just as often, he would aim his shot gun and shoot at anyone who dared to offend him. His catch phrase, “Yahoo! It’s Mountain Dew. It’ll tickle your innards.”

     Television and movies adopted the Appalachian mountain man stereotype. There was Ernest T. Bass and Pa Darling on “The Andy Griffith Show,” Festus Haggen on “Gunsmoke,” and a string of amusing characters on “Hee Haw.” The most famous fictional hillbilly family though was the Clampett’s on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” There was Jed Clampett; his daughter, Elly May; his mother-in-law, Granny or Daisy Moses; and his nephew, Jethro Bodine, who bragged on his sixth-grade education.

     Al Capp drew the newspaper cartoon “Li’l Abner” for forty-three years. In it he featured Abner Yokum who lived in a cabin in Dogpatch, with his parents Mammy and Pappy Yokum.

     A new book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” landed on the New York Times best-seller list earlier this year. Its author, J. D. Vance, tells a compelling story of his family. His grandparents, Jim and Bonnie Vance, fled their community of Jackson, in eastern Kentucky, in the middle of the twentieth century, and followed the “Hillbilly Highway” north to Middletown, Ohio, where Jim worked in the steel mill.

  1. D. lists the reasons why he calls Jim and Bonnie Vance hillbillies. They spew the most foul language. They display hair-triggered tempers, ready for a fight. They are quick to defend their family’s honor. They marry far too young. They drink far too much alcohol. They consume a poor diet. They are uneducated. College or a hope for a better future are distant dreams.

     When young, J. D. has little contact with his dad, and his mother is a hopeless drug addict who brings a string of men into their home. She turns on each of them. She screams, she throws things at them, until the tirades and the drug-induced hysteria drive each away. As a result, J. D. and his older half-sister Lindsay spend lots of time with Jim and Bonnie, who take a special interest in them

    Bonnie encourages her grandson to do well in high school. He tries, but his home life is so chaotic, and he misses so much school. Evenings Jim works with J. D. on his math problems. After high school, J. D. joins the Marines, serves one tour in Iraq, and then attends Ohio State University, where he graduates in a year and a half, even though he works at two jobs. The Marines’ discipline allows him to survive on four or five hours of sleep. He applies to Yale Law School and receives an acceptance.

  1. D. is now thirty-one, works as an attorney, and lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

     The book’s critics point out that J. D. is not a hillbilly. First, he is smart, focused, and driven. He sees distant goals and pursues them. Also, he worked to control his temper and cease lashing out at those he loves, and he managed to steer clear of the drugs and alcohol. Most people though cannot ace Yale law school, and cannot escape their chaotic and depressed home lives.

     Then, J. D. did not grow up in the Appalachian Mountains. Instead, he grew up in Middletown, Ohio, in the Rust Belt, two generations removed from eastern Kentucky’s economy and culture.

     One of the book’s reviewers, Paul Prather, points out that J. D. identifies certain of the Rust Belt’s negatives: “the vanished jobs in union factories and steel mills,” and that “the working class seems caught in a free fall of addiction, unemployment, fury, and hopelessness. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ shows us how that feels up close.”

     Donald Trump, a New Yorker, who has lived his life many miles removed from either the Rust Belt or the Appalachians, tapped into those feelings of “fury and hopelessness” during his run for the Presidency. Middletown’s residents recognize that the jobs in the steel factories have “vanished,” and that the town’s middle-class workers struggle to find work. As a result, people turn to alcohol and drugs. Trump perceived their deep frustration and spoke to it.

     It is true. Middletown’s residents do suffer from rampant drug abuse. The city lies inside Butler County, and the county’s coroner recently said that that “he expects 2016 will top last year’s 189 drug overdose deaths, and that 141 of those are related to heroin or fentanyl.”

     J. D. Vance was lucky. He escaped Middletown’s drug problem, and his mother’s chaotic life, and he forged a better life for himself. He dresses well, speaks well, writes well, and holds down an excellent job. He is far from the hillbilly stereotype, and thus sees little reason to grab a gun and shoot at anyone who offends him, or to sip home-brewed “mountain dew” moonshine from a jug.