Thursday, July 13, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance - Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Harper Collins, 2016, $12.59/15.99) has been on the NY Times Best Seller List for forty-nine weeks, and at the time of this writing, stands at number two. This touching, revealing, warm, sad, and inspiring memoir, written by a Yale Law School graduate whose childhood was spent in the hills of eastern Kentucky and the migrated community of Middletown, OH, opens many sores while explaining in the most human and personal terms possible the pain and misunderstanding that harms working class and poor white Americans in the Hheartlands. Throughout this tale Vance sometimes mentions findings of academic studies and other research, using them to support or introduce his own poignant experiences, but, most of all, this is the story of one man's ability to persevere in an environment where success such as he has experienced is rare, and , according to him psychically costly as well as economically expensive.

Living within a home with serial father figures coming and going and an alcoholic, drug addicted mother, he attributes the source of his core values to life in rural Jackson, Kentucky in the hills and hollers of Appalachia with his Mamaw and any number of uncles and cousins. He describes on academic paper in which the authors suggest that “hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist, a characteristic of bluegrass music, too. Vance refuses to look the others way.

Vance tracks the two major migrations from Appalachia to the industrial mid-west, particularly Middletown, OH, which were mirrored in the South, mid-South and New England, the depression era migrations and the post-WWII migration of returning veterans. He examines how the regions prospered and then died off with the decline of America industrial might, leaving abandoned neighborhoods, unemployment, and drug dependency behind, attributing this to both bad government policies and globalism.

Vance consistently refers to himself and his family as being poor and then at other times being “working class.” Joan C. Williams, in White Working Class seems to make a clear distinction between the two while Vance vacillates. He talks about “his people,” Kentucky migrants to southern Ohio, as often living off the dole, not working, and being plagued by drugs and violence, yet also talks about an uncle who escapes to the middle class, and his mother who, despite being an addict, was a nurse who was able to work a good deal of the time. He glories, however, in his extended family, his many uncles who provide him with male role models in both positive and negative ways. At times he seems remarkably judgmental, while at others, forgiving.

As Vance matures through adolescence, he begins to see the disjointures between both liberal and conservative points of view. He sees many of the government programs as well meaning but ineffective while the conservative solutions were disciplinary and draconian. In his reading of sociology, while in high school, he began to realize that the situation of black people described in his readings about black America contained the same dilemmas as did the lives and existence of the white working poor from Appalachia. “Our Elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.” (144) He's writing about religion, work, and family when he observes the deep “cognitive dissonance between the world we see and the values we preach.” (147)

As Vance prepares to attend Yale Law School he explains in touching, no-holds-barred language why a person like him, growing up in poverty, bedeviled by the rigors of having a drug addicted mother living with multiple husbands, and seemingly inured to violence and loss could reject the attractions of both the left and the right. These chapters, presented within the context of an actual life lived in poverty and difficulty, if not despair, bring so many working class and poor white men, especially, to accept so much patently untrue or misleading material in seeking to understand who they are, why they got that way, and how difficult it is to extricate oneself. In short, Vance asserts, it's easier for many to blame “the other” than it is to do the hard analysis of one's own choices, accept the verdict, and get to work to change things. What sets J.D. Vance apart is his ongoing optimism, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Interestingly, Hillbilly Elegy can also stand as a “How To” book for those seeking to find their own way to a different place in both the workplace and in society. For instance, the non-verbal behavioral cues of social class are significantly different than the behaviors that pass for progressing in working class employment and social environments. Vance shows himself always to be exceptionally alert to what's going on around him. As he gains in self confidence, his ability to ask questions of those he trusts increases. He's also a very fast learner. Nevertheless he owns to deep feelings of abandoning the culture from which he comes while yearning to become part of that with which he's not, yet, thoroughly familiar. However, the struggle is neither easy nor always successful.

J.D. Vance

Throughout Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Vance scatters data and information from relevant sociological and psychological writing to illuminate the points he makes, to give them a solid theoretical context. Such use of accurate research information never seems intrusive or fault-finding. Rather, it seeks to help a reader generalize from the highly personal revelation of the pain and confusion of Vance's childhood. It helps the reader gain understanding and perspective without ever excusing either those who raised him or his own mis-understandings, missed paths, and possibly botched relationships. He bravely opens the scars on his psyche, examines them, faces their consequences, and comes out the other side a stronger and better person. His painstaking honesty with the reader and his courage are never in doubt. This is not a book for the reader to quarrel with. Rather, it requires being good listeners, seeking to find the truths as they apply to them. Some would prescribe better, more effective programs. Others view the problems of poverty and drug addiction as the fault of the victim. While, ultimately, Vance looks towards personal responsibility for life, he fully understands the necessity for a compassionate government and individual acceptance of responsibility working together to make progress possible for all. I bought the book and read it on my Kindle app.  

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