Hillbilly Elegy

Mamaw Character Analysis

Vance’s grandmother, and Bev’s mother. Having spent most of her life in Jackson, Kentucky, Mamaw came from a family that “would shoot at you rather than argue with you.” Vance makes clear that she was incredibly loyal—especially when it came to family—and she detested when hillbillies betrayed one another. When she was young, for example, she caught a man trying to steal her family’s cow. She held the thief at gunpoint and would have killed him if her brother (whom J.D. calls Uncle Pet) hadn’t intervened. Mamaw’s relationship with Papaw (her husband) was complicated, considering that the couple fought aggressively in their younger years, especially when Papaw had a drinking problem. Still, they had three children: J.D’s Uncle Jimmy, his Aunt Wee, and his mother. Although they separated and eventually moved into different houses in Middletown, Ohio, Mamaw and Papaw continued to spend every day with one another, having reconciled their differences in old age. Mamaw served as a guardian to J.D., giving him love and support when he needed it most. When Bev was unable to properly care for him, it was Mamaw who shouldered the burden of raising Vance. Importantly, she also encouraged him to pursue higher education, which ultimately helped him escape poverty.

Mamaw Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy

The Hillbilly Elegy quotes below are all either spoken by Mamaw or refer to Mamaw. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Collins edition of Hillbilly Elegy published in 2017.
Chapter 2 Quotes

For starters, a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrase—“too big for your britches”—to describe those who think they’re better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly. This pattern was common among Appalachian migrants: More than nine in ten would make visits “home” during the course of their lives, and more than one in ten visited about once a month. My grandparents returned to Jackson often, sometimes on consecutive weekends, despite the fact that the trip in the 1950s required about twenty hours of driving. Economic mobility came with a lot of pressures, and it came with a lot of new responsibilities.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Papaw
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation long mobile

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Hillbilly Elegy quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

Within two generations, the transplanted hillbillies had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level. Yet their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated. They always had one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one. They slowly acquired a small number of friends but remained strongly rooted in their Kentucky homeland.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Papaw , Bev Vance, Aunt Wee (Lori Vance) , Uncle Jimmy
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 4 Quotes

One of our neighbors was a lifetime welfare recipient, but in between asking my grandmother to borrow her car or offering to trade food stamps for cash at a premium, she’d blather on about the importance of industriousness. “So many people abuse the system, it’s impossible for the hardworking people to get the help they need,” she’d say. This was the construct she’d built in her head: Most of the beneficiaries of the system were extravagant moochers, but she—despite never having worked in her life—was an obvious exception.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 6 Quotes

The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 9 Quotes

The problems of our community hit close to home. Mom’s struggles weren’t some isolated incident. They were replicated, replayed, and relived by many of the people who, like us, had moved hundreds of miles in search of a better life. There was no end in sight. Mamaw had thought she escaped the poverty of the hills, but the poverty—emotional, if not financial—had followed her.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Bev Vance
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Chapter 10 Quotes

Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Papaw
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile

For all my grandma’s efforts, for all of her “You can do anything; don’t be like those fuckers who think the deck is stacked against them” diatribes, the message had only partially set in before I enlisted. Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren’t good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn’t possible see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it. […]

I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.”

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw
Page Number: 177
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
Get the entire Hillbilly Elegy LitChart as a printable PDF.
Hillbilly elegy.pdf.medium

Mamaw Character Timeline in Hillbilly Elegy

The timeline below shows where the character Mamaw appears in Hillbilly Elegy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...pass on the street, everybody would stop. Vance once asked his grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, why this was the case, and she responded, “Because, honey, we’re hill people. And we... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
In the 1940s, Mamaw moved with her husband—Vance’s Papaw—from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, leaving behind the Blantons, her large... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Another family story goes as follows: when Mamaw was twelve, she walked outside and saw two men trying to steal the Blantons’ cow,... (full context)
Chapter 2
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
Vance writes that Mamaw and Papaw’s presence in his life was the best thing to ever happen to him.... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
...work in their rural communities due to the fact that these towns hadn’t been industrialized. Mamaw and Papaw, Vance points out, were part of the second wave of hillbilly migration, which... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
While Mamaw and Papaw’s relatives resented them for abandoning their home, their new neighbors “viewed them suspiciously.”... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Despite how hard it was to integrate into Middletown, Mamaw and Papaw slowly started to get used to their new life. In 1951 they had... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
Although Mamaw and Papaw felt isolated from their culture, Middletown’s values aligned with their belief in hard... (full context)
Chapter 3
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
After Uncle Jimmy, Mamaw and Papaw had two more children: Vance’s mother Bev and his Aunt Wee (her real... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...out of high school at sixteen and married an abusive husband. This went against what Mamaw and Papaw had hoped for their children, for although they themselves modeled domestic instability, they... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
In spite of their fraught history, Mamaw and Papaw reconciled, and Papaw stopped drinking in 1983. Vance believes that it was around... (full context)
Chapter 5
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
...Bev married Bob Hamel, who was kind to her children and legally adopted J.D. Nevertheless, Mamaw strongly disapproved of Bob because she thought he wasn’t good enough for Bev. “What drove... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...hillbilly preoccupation with loyalty and honor often led to schoolyard fights, a pastime that even Mamaw subtly condoned by telling him that it was acceptable to fight as long as it... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...his mother and Bob decided to move away from Middletown, thereby cutting him off from Mamaw and Papaw, the most dependable adult figures in his life. Not long after, Bev and... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
One day, Vance came home and saw Mamaw’s car in the driveway. He learned that she had come because Bev had attempted to... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...pool, he told her that his mother was chasing him and asked her to call Mamaw. The woman rushed him inside and gave him the phone. Bev arrived and started pounding... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...him. In return, he made a deal with his mother that he could live with Mamaw and Papaw whenever he wanted, a deal Mamaw reinforced my promising that if Bev had... (full context)
Chapter 6
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...model. Hoping to catch a break and kickstart her career, she convinced her mother and Mamaw to drive her to a local hotel, where an agency was holding auditions. When they... (full context)
Religion and Education Theme Icon
When they got home from the modeling audition, Vance spoke to Mamaw in private, asking, “Mamaw, does God love us?” To his surprise, his grandmother hugged him... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...Despite what he had been told, Vance learned that his father was a kind man. Mamaw and Bev had insisted that he was abusive, but Don denied this. He had also... (full context)
Chapter 7
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...and thanked him for what he’d said, but Bev kept her distance. Later, Vance found Mamaw in the corner, staring silently at the floor. In this moment, he saw that she... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Soon after returning from Jackson, Vance walked onto Mamaw’s porch to see Bev standing in a towel in her front yard and berating Matt,... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
When Bev went into drug rehab, Vance was hesitant to turn to Mamaw because he didn’t want to burden her now that Papaw was gone. As such, he... (full context)
Chapter 8
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...minutes from Middletown, a fact that distressed Vance because it meant that he wouldn’t see Mamaw, Lindsay and her new baby, or his friends at school. Because of this, he refused... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...trapped by the fact that he had nobody to turn to; Papaw was dead and Mamaw was aging quickly and seemed too frail to care for a 14-year-old boy. (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...he was a kind man who could offer Vance a stable life. Nonetheless, Vance missed Mamaw and Lindsay, and after only a couple weeks at Don’s, he decided to go home.... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
After living with Mamaw for the remainder of the summer before starting ninth grade, Vance agreed to move to... (full context)
Chapter 9
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
One morning after Vance spent the night at Mamaw’s, Bev burst in and demanded that he give her his urine, because her employers were... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
After Bev demanded J.D.’s urine, Mamaw informed her daughter that Vance would live with her full-time from that point onwards. As... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
Vance explains that Mamaw’s neighbor registered her house for Section 8, a government program “that offers low-income residents a... (full context)
Chapter 10
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
Vance’s time in Mamaw’s house markedly improved his academic performance—so much so that he was accepted to Ohio State... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...2005, Vance learned that his unit would be going to Iraq in the late Spring. Mamaw was noticeably worried, but there was nothing to be done. As he waited to ship... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
When it became clear that Mamaw was not going to come out of her coma, the family decided to take her... (full context)
Chapter 11
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
...school, to which he had already been accepted. He stayed with Aunt Wee—who had taken Mamaw’s place as the family matriarch—and worked at a tile factory. From his new vantage point,... (full context)
Conclusion
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
...Several months later, Brian’s mother died. “What happens to Brian?” Vance asks. “He has no Mamaw or Papaw, at least not like mine, and […] his hope of a ‘normal life’... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...childhood, wherein he’s trapped in a conference room inside a tree house with Lindsay and Mamaw. Suddenly, Bev enters and starts wreaking havoc on the room, upturning furniture and screaming. Mamaw... (full context)