Friday, November 18, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Review)

Release date: June 28th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Harper
Pages: 272

Description (from Goodreads):

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

Before reading this book, the word "hillbilly" instantly brought into my mind a few things, mainly the image of Billy Ray Cyrus. Yes, you read that right. I used to really like Hannah Montana back in the day, and I think I always kind of associated Billy Ray Cyrus as being a hillbilly (I think he even wrote a book or something called Hillbilly Heart.) J.D. Vance's book is definitely not about Billy Ray Cyrus, and it definitely managed to give me a more well-rounded definition of what a hillbilly really is (though obviously Vance's description is not the definite truth, but rather his own interpretation.)

I saw this book making rounds as a book that would explain why Trump has gotten so popular in US. That prospect made me both intrigued and scared -- would Vance offer a view that is non-partial, or would he provide the reader with pro-Trump trash? Neither is really true when it comes to what Hillbilly Elegy really is. While it might give some ideas about the society in which some people are willing to give attention to Trump, it does not really comment on Trump himself in any way. 

Hillbilly Elegy is essentially Vance's account of his own life and how growing up in a Hillbilly family was both a blessing and a curse. He recounts his childhood filled with grandparents, aunts, cousins, his mom, and a multiple father candidates that never end up sticking around. He acknowledges that people like him rarely "get away" and manage to create lives for themselves that differ from those their parents had. Vance's mother is addicted to multiple substances, and his father is only partilly part of his life, which are things that did not seem very promising to him growing up. But with the help of other adults, mainly his grandmother, Vance was able to rise up on the social ladder, and now he is probably among the 1%, the wealthy American upper class. 

The role of Vance's grandmother (or mamaw) is one of the most interesting aspects of Vance's book. The influence of mamaw, a strong personality who might not have been liked by all, but who was able to keep Vance on the right road, shows that sometimes, when our parents fail us, the only way to keep going might be the careciving of someone who is not "supposed" to take care of you. Vance acknowledges how lucky he was to have someone like mamaw on his corner, and that now everyone is as lucky as him.

While the first 70% of this book were extremely interesting, I feel like the moment Vance starts to recount his tales from Yale, I partially lost my interest. Vance has been incredibly lucky, and he does take that into account, but I couldn't help to feel that at points he was just using this book to tell everyone how fricking awesome he is. Yes, he might be awesome, I don't know about that, but when he does it comparing himself to those who were not as fortunate as he was feels kind of douchey. 

Vance argues that in order for the Hillbillies to prosper, they need to take control of their lives and in a way, be someone like him who is not ready to let the obstacles of social class stop them. He recounts tales of how he used to work in manual labour and how his co-workers were often late and dropped out of work because they did not feel like working. He writes about "wellfare queens" and people who blame their problems on the government without actually doing anything to make things better. While both of these things can, and probably do, happen, I think Vance occasionally generalizes things a bit too much and gives a very arrogant image of himself. Experiences in the Hillbilly community, like in any other community out there, are subjective, and while Vance might have been surrounded with a "people like him" growing up, he cannot have intimate knowledge of the backgrounds of those people he deemed too lazy or too uninterested to make things better for themselves.

I also couldn't help feeling like this blue collar work world Vance writes about is probably not as hellish as he lets his reader believe it is. It feels like for Vance, blue collar workers are lazy time wasters who cannot take care of their families. Once again, Vance fails to see that people are different, and relies on generalisations about a huge group of people. Not everyone can graduate from Yale, and not everyone even wants to. And that is completely fine. He continually seems to make this distinction between people like him (educated, experienced) and people like he used to be (uneducated) and seems to believe that people like him are needed to tell the people like he used to be how to better their lives. 

The last few paragraphs might make it sound like I did not really like this book, but don't get me wrong, there were things here that I really did enjoy, which resulted in me giving it three stars. The stories from Vance's childhood were occasionally heartbreaking, but there was a lot of hope out there as well -- he had good relations with his sister, his grandparents, and other family members. There is also surprisingly quite a bit of humor in here, and while I think I would have first been quite terrified by mamaw, I believe I would have liked her at the end of the day.

Vance writes quite well, and especially the beginning of the book made me feel like I did not want to put my iPad down. I must admit that going into this believing it would maybe open my eyes more as to why certain groups of people are turning to Trump as a sort of savior, and noticing it did not really do that was kind of disappointing. But at the same time, I do think Hillbilly Elegy offers an interesting story of ONE PARTICULAR person with a hillbilly background. For a broader look into the Hillbilly lifestyle/culture, I think Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America could be the book to go with (I will definitely check it out as soon as possible!)

"The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future -- that if they're lucky, they'll manage to avoid welfare; and if they're unlucky, they'll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year."

"In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school's entering freshmen won't make it to graduation. Most won't graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state. Students don't expect much from themselves, because the people around them don't do very much."

"There was, and still is, a sense that those who make it are of two varieties. The first are lucky: They come from wealthy families with connections, and their lives were set from the moment they were born. The second are the meritocratic: They were born with brains and couldn't fall if they tried. Because very few in Middletown fall into the former category, people assume that everyone who makes it is just really smart. To the average Middletonian, hard work doesn't matter as much as raw talent."

"How much of your lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?"


1 comment:

  1. I have had this on my TBR and picked up a copy a couple of weeks ago before finding out that it is on The New York Times list of some compilation of understanding the election. I really don't see the connection, but maybe I will when I read the book.
    Nicely balanced review. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.


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