Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HILLBILLY ELEGY by JD Vance (non-fic)

JD Vance has written an engrossing book, a story of his overcoming a  dysfunctional background that would have defeated a less singular person.  He was born into an Appalachian family from eastern Kentucky.  His ancestors lived for years in the small town of Jackson, barely eking out a living in the hard earth once rich in coal mines.  About the time his parents were married, the mines were closing and thousands of Kentucky miners, desperate for work, had fled to the rust belt areas of Ohio to make a living in the then thriving steel mills.
Vance is a remarkable person.  His parents and grandparents settled in Middletown, Ohio where they found work in Armco Steel.  Although poor by many standards, the family were hard working, proud,  loyal to family and country, yet beset by violence and drugs. Vance's grandfather, Papaw, whom all adored, was an alcoholic with a violent streak, his mother, trained as a nurse, was an addict. His grandmother, Mamaw, was a tough Mountain woman with a mean mouth, who loved her family fiercely and protected the lot of them.  She was largely responsible for keeping Vance on the straight and narrow.  She recognized something in him that separated him from others in the family.

It wasn't long before Vance's parents divorced; he barely knew his father and the man his mother married soon after, adopted him and gave him his name.  She went on to have five husbands and enough relationships that 15 men filtered through her children's lives, loving above all else the drugs she was hopelessly addicted to.  Eventually Mamaw stepped in rescued Vance and his sister, Lindsay.
Despite living in the most chaotic circumstances, Vance had he foresight to see that he was not ready for college by the time he graduated from high school.  He joined the marines and credits his four year experience with the military with teaching him responsibility and maturity.  When he came out he completed university and went on to Yale to study law.  He thrived there under the tutelage of his mentor, Amy Chua, famous for writing the book, "Tiger Mom."

Early in the book, Vance states, "I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself.....I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.....And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us."
Vance does a good job of showing that life and its causes and effects to his readers; his is an accurate analysis of the white working class because he is a product of that life and is proud to have come from Kentucky stock. Though polemical, his account has much to teach readers who have no experience to draw on when trying to understand the fascination Donald Trump has for the desperately poor who have been left behind as American companies have fled abroad.

"Hillbilly Elegy" is currently at the top of the bestseller list in the United States.  I highly recommend it as an insight into an increasingly important segment of American society in our charged political climate.

1 comment:

  1. Strangers I'm Their Own Land addresses similar material from a more sociological angle. The Redneck Manifesto goes for the jugular in a comic style that some may find offensive but that others might find bracing and refreshing. Clay's Quilt is a beautiful novel set in Appalachia that does a nice job presenting the timeworn aspects of life that are valued by pepole in that region. I recommend them all in the aftermath of this election.