Showing up on quite a few Best of 2016 Book Lists, the bestselling Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is a memoir of growing up in a hillbilly family in Ohio. Regarded in some circles as a Rosetta Stone for understanding Appalachia and the poor, white voting block in light of Trump’s success, the book serves better an articulation of growing up poor in America and the difficulties in upward mobility. It’s a fascinating and enjoyable book.
The familial and cultural roadblocks he encounters could certainly apply to an Indian reservation in Montana, for example. The impact of trauma on his life and on his family is a lesson to apply to all families. The lack of role models and social capital affect all the poor. As Vance learns “willfulness” (he compares the “learned willfulness” of the Marines to the “learned helplessness” of his upbringing) his story soars. He takes responsibility for his life, takes advantage of those willing to help him, and recognizes that the amazing care of his grandmother allowed him to overcome the obstacles in his life.
The book is a fascinating look at a region full of contradictions—drug abuse, beautiful scenery, proud heritage, domestic abuse, emphasis on hard work but with high unemployment, reverence for talent over hard work—and enough blame to go around. Vance blames the people for failing to work hard, for failing to care for each other, for failing to mentor the next generation, for failing to provide a safety net. He blames the government for trying to solve problems with welfare. If you’re looking for solutions, Vance doesn’t provide them. But if you’re looking for insights into the chaotic lives of the white, working poor, this book will provide the elegy (i.e. sad portrait).
This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being… Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs… at especially stressful times, we’ll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family. (146)
Reading Hillbilly Elegy will challenge your beliefs about the American Dream, poverty, and class.