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Hillbilly Elegy, J D Vance, Harper, 2016, 257 pp
First off, let me say that this review contains my very personal reactions to this book as well as some political views. I don't generally like to get political on the blog or on social media, but the current scene has changed me. I feel I need to speak up for as long as I have a chance to do so. I don't expect everyone to agree with me and in fact welcome all comments, so long as they are not hateful or rude.
I am glad I read this. J D Vance grew up in a small Ohio town, the son of an unstable mother who went through men the way some women go through shoes, who was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and who left her son feeling unstable, unloved, and unprotected. If not for his maternal grandparents, he would have been a statistic. Because of them and his sister along with a few other teachers and friends, he became a success story.
The grandparents were hillbillies from Kentucky's Appalachia area who moved to Ohio to escape poverty. Their story shows you can take the hillbilly out of Appalachia but you can't take the Appalachia mentality out of the hillbilly. Alcohol, inconsistent and sometimes abusive parenting, as well as the culture of Appalachia made a "middle class" family that sounded nothing like my ideas of the American middle class. J D's story is harrowing, in the way that Jeannette Wall's The Glass Castle was.
Yet, he did finish high school, he graduated from college and Yale Law School, became a successful lawyer, and found a wonderful wife. This is a story of hope leavened by the randomness of life. I would say, after reading the book, that the author is in the one percent of people who can rise above the self-defeating cultural patterns of poverty, drug use, Evangelical beliefs, and violence that plagues so much of our country.
I credit the book for painting what I accept as a credible picture of a large part of society. I am a middle class white liberal and I could hardly recognize the people in J D Vance's family. However, since the election of Donald Trump, I have forced myself to listen to/read the screeds of his followers because I felt it was important to understand why anyone would have voted for him. I still don't totally get it but I am beginning to fathom a mentality that I had been in denial about. In fact, ever since watching the movie Idiocracy, I have joked about the idiocracy.
Hillbilly Elegy convinced me it is no joke, that in fact our country is riddled with misinformed, under-educated, crippled individuals who are divorced from what is actually going on in the world. I am starting to understand how such a disaster can happen in the richest, most powerful democracy in the world, but I have little idea what can be done about it.
I am aware that our new President also has many supporters who are well educated, who grew up in stable homes, who have been successful in life. I don't get that at all. It is sad.
I think Hillbilly Elegy is an important book. While it purports to be a memoir and is successful as such, the author mixed in a good deal of sociological analysis. Those sections were less successful because they led to no real solutions.
The main conclusion I came to is that it is not our government leaders or even our political system that will either solve or exacerbate these problems. It takes an entire populace, the majority of whom are dedicated to the ideals of democracy and equal rights, to justice, to liberty. The question in 2017 is do we have such a majority. I choose to believe we do.
(Hillbilly Elegy is available on the non-fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)