Friday, December 30, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (2016)

J.D. Vance comes from a family of working-class people in Appalachia, one rife with abuse and violence and lack of education. He overcame the odds though, and attended college and law school and is now in a happy, healthy marriage. In his memoir, he tells the story of where he came from, his family, and his upward mobility.

Vance didn't really know his biological father, and his mother had a lot of substance-abuse problems and a seemingly never-ending parade of boyfriends and husbands. His family had a history of violence and abuse, but it also provided love and encouragement in his grandparents, especially his "Mamaw" who provided a home for him when he needed to get away from his mother. This was an informal arrangement, not a legal one, and he notes, "The enforcement mechanism was equally informal: Mamaw would kill anyone who tried to keep me from her. This worked for us because Mamaw was a lunatic and our entire family feared her." It was also Mamaw who encouraged Vance to stay in school and pursue his education. He joined the military first, which was exactly what he needed to grow up, and then went on to attend college and Yale Law School.

The book is primarily about his life and family, but he also provides some cultural commentary on working-class white people, and the politics and philosophy come to the fore more near the end. As much as I was interested in his experiences growing up, I had been wanting to get these perspectives from him the entire time I was reading the book.

Vance believes there are two types of working-class whites: "My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful."

He says that what he'd most like to change about the white working-class is "The feeling that our choices don't matter." He also observes: "What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser; it's the governments fault." This shifting the blame from one's own responsibility to an outside force only makes people feel more powerless, hence feeling like it doesn't matter what they do, they'll be stuck.

As for what to do to solve the problems of his people, Vance doesn't think there's a magic government program or brilliant idea that is going to fix everything. He says: "These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them...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."

This is currently the most-requested book in my library system with over 1000 holds right now. It's been fairly popular since it came out in June, but interest has really spiked since the election. I've heard it recommended to help people try and understand the election, but that's very simplistic thinking. This doesn't begin to explain the clusterfuck of the 2016 US Presidential election and all the factors that affected the outcome. What it does is offer some insight into the lives of rural, working-class white people, which for me is value enough.

Although I live in eastern Massachusetts and have a career and am fairly worldly at this point in my life, I was born in a rural area full of working-class white people, not terribly different from what Vance describes. So I forget that this culture is pretty alien to a lot of people, and the popularity of this book as a learning tool has therefore surprised me. I'm very glad it's so popular though, because I think that poor, rural, white people are very much overlooked in our culture. That's why I was so interested to read this book when I first learned about it earlier this year. It's one of several books related to this topic that have been published recently (see also: Hand To Mouth), a trend that I hope continues.

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