Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Vance)

I’ve very much appreciated what I’ve seen as a recent trend of producing and sharing reading lists for issues and questions that, judging by the number of these lists, a decent number of people are having trouble understanding. There are reading lists to accompany Beyonce’s Lemonade, the Syrian refugee crisis, Ferguson, etc.. I will never get through them all, but that won’t stop me from trying.

So it was no surprise to me when reading lists emerged for those of us (myself included) trying to understand the recent Presidential election. Vance’s book was always on these lists, and I resolved to wait for the paperback. Then I learned that Vance was coming to Ohio to lead a program called Our Ohio Renewal. So I decided to splurge for the hardback.

It’s an interesting and pretty quick read. And it is about a community I’ve only experienced a bit – I live in Ohio and have family (that I haven’t seen for a long, long time for reasons that seem to fit the character of the people Vance describes) in West Virginia. Vance interweaves his own story with the story of his two main hometowns (one in Kentucky, one in Ohio) in an effort to explain why the area has turned (like him) Republican. Though he identifies a range of issues, the one that seems to spark the most passion in him is the way he and his family perceive that the welfare system has destroyed the desire of members of his community to work while still allowing them to afford the likes of t-bone steaks and cell phones.

It comes across as a dangerously oversimplified argument. Though he shows that he’s done his homework elsewhere,  in his defense of the ruinous nature of the welfare state, he resorts to a bandwagon argument (“many in the working class saw precisely what I did”) and an inflammatory quotation, one not worth repeating here (140, if you have the book).

Vance does not quite resort to the exceptionalism argument. He knows that “somebody along the line gave [him] some help.” He describes a remarkable, if unconventional, family structure and gives them credit for making sure he didn’t become a statistic. And I could definitely support some of the policy prescriptions he advocates near the end of the book. And I do support the notion of helping individuals learn to make better decisions. For me, it’s a both-and situation, something that seems to elude Vance. He talks about how his beloved Mamaw seemed to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. His tone is one of gentle chiding for her inconsistency or apparent contradictions. (This seems to be Vance’s most damning comments about everyone – that they don’t recognize their own contradictions. Isn’t this what makes us human?) I think he misses the point here. The grandmother he describes does not seem to care one bit for Democrats or Republicans. She cares for what helps people, particularly her family and especially children.

So, read it? Sure. It’s illuminating, but I am not sure I see enough insight here for him to lead Our Ohio Renewal. We’ll see.

What’s next for me on this particular syllabus? Maybe this? White Trash – Isenberg. Has anyone read it? Other suggestions?


One Reply to “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Vance)”

  1. I appreciate your views on JD’s book as I am a Chicano Vietnam Era vet who whose first 12 yrs were spent in the Barrio in El Paso Tx, son of a WW II Army vet who came back w/serious mental/somatic issues. My Mom & Gma were Tigresses who defended my two brothers and I from his rages and the dangers in the Barrio environment. I was offered a ‘joint’ coming out of Sunday School at age six and saw a man injecting his arm in alley behind my father’s business (also our home). Once, I was beaten up on way home from school and my Mom grabed the culprit by the collar and told him in Spanish she would kill him if he ever laid a hand on me again ( I was seven, he was thirteen and member of ‘tough family- my Mom was fearless!). My Mom moved heaven and earth to make certain all three of us became fluent bilinguals, knowing our two cultures/histories, served our country’s Armed Forces – one of my brothers and team members foiled Warsaw Pact and Cuban Intelligence plots to destabilize and seize Panama Canal Zone for which he received highest non-combat award, modeled helping others – we housed for 4 mos. a Cuban refugee family in 1963 in our home, had total faith expressed in Spanish Traditional Roman Catholic Apostolic mindscape that we must be what we believe and not impose our beliefs (religious or moral) on others -ever, and all completed university and pursued successful careers. My early life and JD’s share some of same traumas and include some way more painful to mention here. I can state my family went through a different type of Hell as a result of war’s effect on the mind yet my Mom and Grandma cared for, defended and nurtured our self esteem against assaults in family and outside by hostile neighborhood and culture – once, I came home dejected after history class where Mexican War was explained in biased inaccurate way and she patiently explained actual events including that the War was illegal and that the great Lincoln had opposed it! Reading ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ was very emotional for me and had to stop for days at a time when some very painful memories were evoked while very positive feelings of his triumphs made it very worthwhile. As I write this, I feel that problems not addressed in many areas of this country have joined with acts of a foreign power to yield a change in government which is perceived illegal by millions and worse, with no mandate. I hope to God the optimists like JD are right !

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