Heat and Light (Haigh)

When I went to went to go hear Sharon Draper talk about the book she wrote after she wrote Out of My Mind, she said her new one had been hard to write because so many people had called Out of My Mind her “best book ever.” “How,” she asked, “do you write the next book after you’ve written the best book ever?”

I’m afraid Jennifer Haigh has the same problem. In 427 pages, she has created an epic for our times. Populated by the inextricably linked small town characters she has used in her other novels, Heat and Light takes as its central plot the impact of fracking on a small town in Pennsylvania. To Haigh’s enormous credit, she tells the story of many different points of view and uses many different time periods, and what she ends up with is not an anti-fracking diatribe, but a well-balanced examination of the choices people make that they never thought they’d have to confront.

How will the novel stand up in 20 years? I’m not sure. It depends on what’s happening in the fracking world. The point is that it stands up quite well now; it is important, more than say, Hillbilly Elegy. You want to understand the world today, read this. You want to understand people – the people of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – read this. I hated and loved every single one of these characters.

I don’t envy Haigh’s task of following this book. It is, I suspect, a nice problem to have.

The Devil is Here in These Hills (Green)

Green’s book, subtitled West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, covers the years from 1890-1933. I’ve started to become more interested in labor history and have a family connection to West Virginia. Like many others, according to the explanation Green offers as his reason for writing the book, I was not aware of the violent intensity between the miners and their families and the owners / operators of the mines. Green says repeatedly that there is no completely accurate account of how many people died, but everyone – the miners (some of whom were WWI veterans), the private guards the operators hired, the National Guard that had to be summoned, and even the US Army – all had guns. The organizers, the likes of Mother Jones, John Lewis and Frank Keeney, were amazingly persistent and resilient people, especially in an era when transportation and communication were far more difficult than they are today.

But the willingness of the ordinary and here often unnamed families to participate in strikes absolutely astounded me, especially in the later years when the country was experiencing a depression. At times, I wondered whether the rugged spirit that was formed in West Virginians during this time was a kind of precursor to Hillbilly Elegy, and perhaps another explanation of the result of our recent presidential election.

I was also quite taken with how diverse and integrated the union was from its very inception. Even when social forces interceded and resulted in things like segregated housing, the union was always open to all.

Green never really hides his pro-Union bias, and it never overwhelms his narrative. Despite this bias, he is critical of certain union decisions and tactics, particularly when corruption infected the organization.

Green makes the case that this is a story that needed to be told, and he told it well.

How the Other Half Banks: Exclusion, Exploitation and the Threat to Democracy (Baradaran)

Although you wouldn’t think that the history of banking would be exciting, much less the stuff of a musical, Baradaran presents a compelling narrative about how and why we got to the place where we are so far from the democratization of credit that our founders envisioned (and pretty much enacting the fears they anticipated). It boils down to mission drift or, better yet, mission abandonment. Initially, banks were conceived as a public service institution, assigned to serve everyone. At some point in the 70s, the mission shifted to profit, and Baradaran demonstrates how this hybrid – a private profit making institution supported by the government is just not sustainable.

Various alternatives have emerged – the credit union, in its original form, seems to have had some success. But it, too, had its mission corrupted. Baradaran sees some possibilities in postal banking, but her endorsement is far from passionate.

And the question of what comes next (there’s that musical again) is essential. J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame talks about how his family relied on payday loans. And The Atlantic  also wonders what would replace them.

What Will Come After Payday Lending?

a preview of the book on a podcast

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?