Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

A couple of times this year, a friend of mine and fellow West Virginia native, Bill Easterly, recommended the book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture In Crisis by J.D. Vance as a book I should make every effort to read. Dr. Easterly, J.D., and myself have a common Appalachian heritage and the book’s title definitely had me intrigued. An elegy, according to Google is synonymous with a lament, a requiem, a dirge, or a threnody—those are all words that are not in the common American vernacular—a more wordy definition would be a passionate expression of grief or sorrow or maybe to use a biblical analogy, a jeremiad.

I anticipate the book will gain greater traction in the months ahead as I noticed the author being invited to speak on multiple major news outlets about the recent election and the role that individuals from poorer communities in the Rust Belt and the Bible Belt played in the most recent Presidential election and why these historically Democratic communities have been shifting over the last few decades to a Republican base.

The book is mix of memoir and social commentary. The characters are all comprised of J.D.’s family members and is partially a biography as seen from the eyes of Mr. Vance and researched further through interviews with members of his family. It is partially a narrative of the daunting challenges, frustrations, and traps that people in Appalachia experience as part of their daily existence. It’s also a story of overcoming the odds and how J.D. made it from Middletown, Ohio into the Marines, onward to Ohio State University, and even further onward to Yale Law School.

But it is more than that. It is a first-hand account of Appalachian family values like honor and doing one’s best to care for one’s family and resilience in the face of adversity. It’s also an account of just why so many people feel down and out and how the opioid crisis is wreaking havoc in poor communities in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It’s about feeling out of place as a first generation college student, and feeling even more out of place among the wealthy and elite. It’s about discovering that the ‘normal’ of one’s upbringing seems like a complete anomaly in the world of Ivy League education and the ‘normal’ of that education seems like life on another planet for folks from our common backgrounds.

This quote sums up J.D.’s life experience as well as the lives of many others I know, including myself when I think about how life could have turned out.

I was able to escape the worst of my culture’s inheritance. And uneasy though I am about my new life, I cannot whine about it: The life I lead now was the stuff of fantasy during my childhood. So many people helped create that fantasy. At every level of life and in every environment, I have found family and mentors and lifelong friends who supported and enabled me.

There’s so much I want to say about the book and about J.D.’s thoughts about how to improve things in the heartlands of America, but I’ll simply say that if you grew up in Appalachia I believe you will find many of the stories extremely familiar.  If this wasn’t your family’s direct story, you knew this story. I sit here trying to process it all; I just can’t find the words to articulate all of the ways this book stirred me. The language was direct, accessible, and familiar throughout the book. J.D.’s insecurities, anxieties, and trials were not all directly relatable but they definitely had a strong sense of familiarity for me as I think back on the neighborhood where I grew up—a neighborhood where not many finished high school or even thought about college, and where my graduating class lost 20% of its enrollment between the end of my junior and senior year of high school.

More than anything though, as I read, I found myself filled with a deep gratitude for the fact that both my wife and myself had incredibly supportive nuclear and extended families, neighborhoods, and church communities, that protected us, mentored us, supported and guided us because they wanted us to have a better life and more opportunities than they had. If you grew up in Appalachia you know J.D.’s story well (though probably not as well as this first-hand account), and if you weren’t blessed to be able to grow up here, you might better understand some of the cultural complexities and challenges and triumphs of this part of the world by reading his book. I highly recommend Hillbilly Elegy to anyone, but especially my friends who are also first generation college students from this part of the country.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bertrand Russell:
What the peasant (hillbilly) lacks in cruelty to his family he makes up in mistreatment of his animals

Rebecca West, black lamb and grey falcon
I saw a peasant man riding along on a donkey, with his wife, grey with fatigue, walking behind him carrying a plow *a plow* (iirc, emphasis in the original)

yeah, they are your family, but the culture is, really, probably sick and diseased from a century or more of exploitation