Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis

by J.D. Vance
HarperCollins     2016
264 pages     Memoir

I began seeing J.D. Vance on the news circuit in the weeks prior to the election. He represented the white working class voters among the pundits and the talking heads on CNN and explained to television audiences why his "people" voted for Donald Trump. He was an eloquent spokesperson for the conservative voters that the "liberal elite" have had a hard time understanding. In an interview, he said, "for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of a life we left behind continue to chase us."

He begins Hillbilly Elegy by saying that he finds it ludicrous that anyone would be reading his book, because he hadn't done anything "great in his life." But those of us reading his book find that he has done something quite remarkable. He has laid bare the life of the working poor in a way that builds understanding and acceptance. 

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, just up the road from my sister's house in West Chester, Ohio, but it might as well be a world away. Vance's family moved en masse from Kentucky to work in the steel mills of Middletown, making more money than they could have in the hills of Kentucky, but then the jobs went away and misery ensued. The strong social ethic of the hills stayed with those transplants, and that social ethic continues to be the driving force in their lives.

Vance was raised by his grandparents and an older sister because his mother couldn't get her life together enough to care for him. His grandparents fiercely protected him, pushed him, prodded him, and threatened him. “The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future — that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose.” He nearly didn't graduate from high school, but following graduation, he enlisted in the Marines and served in Iraq. Following his military service, he attended Ohio State and Yale Law School. Today, at 31,  he is a business executive, married and living in Silicon Valley.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells the difficult story of his upbringing,  and as he probes for us (and even more importantly, for himself) how he survived and figured out how to thrive, we liberal intellectuals begin to understand how those people around us, like J.D. and his family, came to feel disenfranchised and thus elected a billionaire populist to the presidency. My husband said that the book helped him understand why Michigan's rural areas went pretty solidly for Trump.

I asked my husband what he had learned from reading Hillbilly Elegy. He said that he was struck by the intense loyalty Vance feels for his family, for his grandparents (both now dead), for his sister, and even for his drug addicted mother. My husband said he respected so much how Vance could look beyond the pain of his upbringing to understand the circumstances that caused it. For instance, Vance ponders how some members of his family built stable families, held decent jobs, and maintained sound economic foundations, while his mother floundered so badly. My husband inferred, however, that there is just as much potential for painful upbringings in the lives of "so-called intellectuals" as there is in the white working class. 

At the same time that Vance speaks about how much he loves his family, he is highly critical of those people who feel that they have little control over their lives. He concludes: “I believe we hillbillies are the toughest god----ed people on this earth. But are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children? Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us. . . . 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.”

My husband and I read Hillbilly Elegy aloud, and we like everyone else we know who read it, greatly appreciated its lessons for us. We highly recommend it for its readability and its life lessons. It is easy to see why it has remained on the bestseller lists for so long.

Review in Washington Post.
J.D. Vance website.

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