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Growing up in coal country

I have a lot of memories from growing up in Appalachia.

My family arrived in the Appalachian region around the mid 1700s.

Born and raised in West Virginia, my grandfather worked in a coal mine and fought to get state compensation for all occupational diseases caused by working in a mine. My father didn’t work in a mine but he did sell equipment to coal mining companies. That’s how it was in “coal country.” If you didn’t work for a coal mine, you at least knew someone who did.

My parents separated when I was young. I grew up living mostly with my father, who did his best to make sure my brother and I had everything we needed. We weren’t poor. We weren’t rich either. My dad worked hard and advanced in his career. By most definitions, we were middle-class Americans.

Many of my friends were middle class like me, but most kids in our community grew up in poor working class families.

So when I first overheard a discussion of Hillbilly Elegy, the story of author J.D. Vance’s life growing up in poor communities throughout Appalachian Ohio and Kentucky–communities similar to those I grew up around in West Virginia–I was eager to read his experience.

Abandoned by his father for most of his childhood and having a mother who struggled with drug addiction and a string of failed relationships, Vance relied heavily on his older sister and grandparents, whom he referred to as Mamaw and Papaw.

Mamaw was more no-nonsense than most grandparents. At one point, Mamaw gets so fed up with Papaw’s drinking and abuse, that she tells him if he ever comes home drunk again, she’ll kill him. When Papaw ignores her, “Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. Miraculously, Papaw survived the episode with only minor burns.”

Most of the time though, Mamaw was the loving adult that Vance needed in his life. “Mamaw was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he writes. She spent the last two decades of her life “showing me the value of love and stability.”

As I read Vance’s book and reflected on my own childhood, I thought about the priviledges I had growing up. Always having shelter, clothing, and food to eat were certainly important for my well-being, but it was the love of the adults in my life that feels most significant. After my parents divorced, my childhood didn’t always feel stable, but at no point did I feel unloved. I was surrounded by many loving and caring people.

While heartbreaking at times, I enjoyed reading Vance’s book. His experience speaks to the challenges that many Americans face in their attempts to pull themselves out of poverty. Vance doesn’t offer simplistic solutions because the challenges these communities face aren’t simple. “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

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