Chapters 8 & 9

Summary: Chapter 8

Two years later, Bev had been sober for a year or more and was living with Matt in Dayton. Lindsay was married and starting a family of her own. J.D. divided his time between Bev’s and Mamaw’s homes during the week and stayed at Don’s on weekends. He was about to enter high school. Bev proposed that J.D. join her and Matt in Dayton full-time. J.D. refused and convinced a therapist that he should instead live full-time with Don. Life with Don’s family was peaceful and stable. However, J.D. was fond of things like the rock band Led Zeppelin and a card game called Magic. He did not trust that Don, with his strict religious views, would love and accept J.D. despite his tastes in music and games. 

Eventually, J.D. asked to go back to live with Mamaw. To J.D.’s grateful surprise, Don understood. It soon become clear, however, that Mamaw was no longer strong enough to parent J.D. full time. J.D. agreed to live with Bev on the condition that he attend high school in Middletown (a long commute). Soon after, however, Bev announced that she and Matt were breaking up and she was marrying Ken, her boss at work. J.D. had to move again, into Ken’s home, to live with Ken’s children. J.D. was miserable. He did poorly in school, drank and tried marijuana, and felt distant from Lindsay and her family.

Summary: Chapter 9

One morning, when J.D. had stayed overnight at Mamaw’s, Bev showed up demanding a urine sample from J.D. She needed the urine to pass a drug test and keep her nursing license. J.D. had to confess to Mamaw that he did not think his urine would pass, either. After she assured him that his minimal marijuana use would not trigger a positive result, he reluctantly gave Bev some urine. However, Mamaw saw that J.D. needed to get away from Bev and insisted that he move back with her, full-time. The two of them would have to make the arrangement work. 

J.D. spent the rest of his high school years with Mamaw. She bought him a calculator for his honors math class and demanded that he apply himself at school. She also insisted he get a job at Dillman’s, a local grocery store, so he could learn the value of a dollar. During those years living at Mamaw’s and working at Dillman’s, J.D. observed Mamaw’s neighbors and the store customers. He saw irresponsible spending, chaotic relationships, poor school performance, unwillingness to work, and refusal to take personal responsibility. These problems, Vance writes, cannot be solved by food stamps and housing subsidies—and those government programs sometimes make the problems worse. What a young person needs most, to succeed in life, is simple stability. That is what Mamaw gave J.D. when she took him in.

Analysis: Chapters 8 & 9

In this chapter, Vance revisits the theme of living a double life, something he must do throughout his youth and especially as a teenager. When he moves in with his father, Vance is constantly on guard and feels as though he must pretend to be someone he’s not. For example, Vance likes classic rock music and the card game Magic, but his father doesn’t approve of these things because of his Christian faith, so Vance feels unable to be his authentic self at home. Another example of pretending occurs when Vance doesn’t tell even his closest friends that he lives with his grandmother. Vance even asks his grandmother not to get out of the car when she picks him up from school, so his friends won’t get a glimpse of her. These scenes mirror the experiences of Mamaw and Papaw, who, despite their economic success, couldn’t be their authentic selves with their friends and coworkers in Middletown. Pretending to be someone or something else is a recurring theme for Vance and everyone in his family.

Vance continues to weigh the positive and negative parts of hillbilly culture through examples of violence, loyalty, and addiction. Vance explains that Mamaw loves to watch the television show The Sopranos because, although the Sopranos are not hillbillies, they embody the hillbilly ideals of violence and family loyalty. The downside of hillbilly culture is also apparent when Vance begins to experiment with alcohol and drugs. When Vance’s mother is facing a drug test (one that she knows she will fail), she demands that Vance give her a cup of clean urine to pass off as her own. Vance refuses his mother’s request on the basis that she doesn’t deserve his help, but in reality, he is worried that his urine won’t be clean either. The positive and negative parts of hillbilly culture are intertwined. Loyalty to family, although a positive trait on its own, sometimes leads to violence and conflict in hillbilly culture.

Vance asserts that his personal experiences prove that government policies meant to help poor people are not adequate or effective. For example, although Vance sees the value in public education, he suggests that Americans have begun to rely too heavily on public institutions to raise their children, and that parents are failing their children by not taking more responsibility in their upbringing. Vance uses his observations about poverty to justify some of the conservative political views he espouses. While working as a cashier at a local grocery store, Vance notes that some poor people take advantage of the welfare system by using their food stamps to buy items that they then sell for cash. Although most of Vance’s family works hard, he speculates that many poor people are content to live off government assistance. Vance uses these examples to support his claim that the Democratic party, despite its vocal commitment to the working class, has failed poor people. In this way, Hillbilly Elegy becomes an opportunity for Vance to argue that conservative policies serve poor people better than liberal policies do.