Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy

Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: June 28, 2016
Pages: 272

                                           "They learned readin', rightin', route 23
                                            To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
                                            They didn't know that old highway
                                            Could lead them to a world of misery"
                                                  - Dwight Yoakam (from "Readin', Rightin', Route 23")

     It seems a little premature for a 30-something to write his memoir.  It is surprising to me that a publisher bought it and even more surprising that Hillbilly Elegy has become the primer for understanding poor white America and the feelings of helplessness and anger which propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.  After reading the book, however, I understand the importance of this book and its unique perspective on the current state of "the American Dream."  

     I found this book easy to read.  Even though it seems like a sociology text in spots, the author keeps the statistics and academic analysis to a minimum.  Vance is able to tell his story and his family's story in such a way that the reader can truly understand the multiple variables which affected him (both positively and negatively) and shaped his adult life.  These same variables defeated many in his family.  The author was fortunate to find the right mentor and guidance at just the right time to point him in his upwardly mobile trajectory.

     This is a story of a grandson of Kentucky "hillbillies" who migrated from Eastern Kentucky to Ohio following World War II.  These folks were looking for jobs and their slice of the American Dream.  As noted in the Dwight Yoakam song quoted above, the escape via Route 23 didn't always have a fairy tale ending.  For the Vances, life brought broken marriages, lost opportunities and addiction: in short, a world of misery.

    J. D. was saved by the two most exceptional characters in the book, his grandparents:  Mamaw and Papaw Vance.  Their home was a safe refuge for J. D. when chaos consumed his home.  J. D. enlisted in the Marines after high school and did a tour in Iraq.  He returned home and attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School.  He very frankly describes his difficulties each step of the way.  Even as he climbed the ladder of success he had to fight the feelings that he didn't belong. 

     In the Preface the author states that "I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.  To many analysts, terms like 'welfare queen' conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole.  Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white."  Vance points out that "there is  cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government and that movement gains adherents by the day."  He notes that "There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites."  He then goes on to explain how politicians, especially modern conservatives, fail to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents.  "Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers...  The message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser; it's the government's fault."

   So, I guess it was time for this thirty-something to write his memoir.  There is much to mull in this short but powerful book.  It is an American success story for the author, but one that is paved with misery and suffering on a grand scale for his family and friends.  The characters are powerful and the author tells this in a very engaging and entertaining way.  It is just as funny in some sections as it is pitiful in others.  Read this book.  It is indeed an important one.

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