Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Enjoyment Rating: 5/5
Source: Audiobook from OverDrive

To kick off 2017, I want to review Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, which I listened to last month. I liked it enough to buy a copy for one of my brothers and recommend it to several people.

Vance writes honestly and movingly about growing up poor in the rustbelt. His grandparents were Appalachian hillbillies who moved from Kentucky to Ohio with the hope of providing a better future for their children. Vance's grandparents were able to achieve a certain amount of financial success compared to the severe poverty they came from, but Vance's mother and uncle struggled in the dueling cultures of hillbilly violence and secrecy (you don't talk about domestic violence to anyone) and the pressures of middle class life. Vance's mother moved from man to man and struggled to hold down jobs while fighting drug addictions. Due in large part to the loving (if still somewhat chaotic) influence of his grandparents and his decision to join the Marines after high school, Vance made it out of Middletown, Ohio and ultimately graduated from Yale Law School. He writes about the challenges facing poor whites in the rustbelt; towns built up around mills and manufacturing plants that provided upward mobility and stability for one or two generations, but when the mill closes the town dies, and even where they remain open, opportunity for upward mobility becomes scarce. Faced with few achievable options, too many individuals bounce around low-paying jobs and struggle with issues of multi-generational violence and addiction.

Though all of the details of Vance's life are different than mine, I felt it resonate on an emotional level. I grew up as a poor white in a small, agricultural producing town in the Central Valley of California. A lot of the families I knew likewise struggled with issues of domestic violence and/or divorce, drug abuse (prescription pain pills or alcohol most common), and the challenges of a lack of opportunity and upward mobility in a town that sends too few away for higher education and has too few good-paying jobs for them to return to. Vance does not advocate for Donald Trump, and I struggle to see how even a single individual was willing to vote for that man, but I think Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting perspective into the lives of poor whites who see little opportunity or reason for optimism in an economy where manufacturing and mining jobs are shrinking and where they see special interest groups advocating for everyone except for them.

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