“Hillbilly Elegy” is an insightful social commentary about the struggles currently being faced by members of the white, Appalachian working class. Its author, J.D. Vance, is uniquely qualified to provide this commentary because he was raised in this socioeconomic group and overcame serious obstacles to attend Yale law school as well as build a strong, healthy marriage.
I’ve recently begun to really worry about some of the things that are happening in the U.S. Part of my problem is that I’m stuck in bed, not interacting with many people, and the TV is droning sensationalized news stories in the background for most of the day. But I don’t think I’m completely overreacting. There are things going on that are weakening the fabric of our country. I read “Hillbilly Elegy” in an effort to understand some of this. (Ironically, I heard about the book when the author appeared on one of those sensationalized news shows, “Morning. Joe”.)
About the first 20% of the book is heavy on content about this subset of our culture. The author is very candid about his heritage, stating, “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.” He then sets out to paint a picture of “how class and family affect the poor.” In fact, he believes family – how they treat each other, set examples, and the domestic atmosphere they create – has a lot to do with whether the cycle of misery perpetuates itself throughout future generations. It’s hard to argue with. He also suggests that simply providing new jobs won’t stop the cycle of poverty if people aren’t capable of being good enough employees to actually keep those jobs (definitely something I’ve witnessed.) And he criticizes politicians for using too much rhetoric along the lines of “your government has failed you” because that just perpetuates that self-defeating myth that all the social and economic woes are beyond one’s own control, that it’s someone else’s fault. Plus, Mr. Vance doesn’t believe the issues of this socioeconomic group can be fixed by government policy. It’s hard to legislate fundamental cultural change.
The middle of the book is a very personal account of the author’s upbringing within this white, working class hillbilly culture. His home life was extremely disruptive. His father gave him up for adoption, leaving him and his sister to be raised by his mom, a woman who had a revolving door of “father figures” coming in and out of her children’s lives. She was a drug addict who was often hostile to her kids. Fortunately, the author’s grandmother played a large role in his life and kept him on track with things like school and provided a lot of the basic safety and nurturing kids need. In fact, Mr. Vance credits her with saving him from getting stuck in the cycle of poverty and misery. He also had other good influences like teachers and the marine corps and, eventually, law school professors and peers.
In fact, in the last part of the book, he talks a lot about the importance of having a strong network of people in one’s life. This was important to him as a kid because of the need for stability and to learn basic values and life lessons. It then became important to him as an adult because he needed help navigating Yale law school and his subsequent law career. In this part of the book, he also makes the very important point that even though he seems to have risen out of his difficult background, parts of it keep trying to yank him back down. For example, his mother became homeless when she broke up with her latest man and the author had to set her up with housing as well as try to help her get her finances sorted. Coincidentally, I was recently watching a show during which the panelists were discussing the fact that many low income black college students struggle in college not due to the difficulty of the coursework but because of familial distractions. It’s hard to break a cycle when it keeps trying to suck you back in.
In the conclusion, the author admits that he doesn’t know what the solution is. This is a complicated issue. But Mr. Vance does say, “… it starts when we (meaning working class whites) stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” You can’t legislate that.
Okay, this “review” was probably more like a book report sprinkled with my own social opinions, but this book really got my juices flowing! If you’re interested in learning one perspective about working class whites from a man who’s lived it, read “Hillbilly Elegy”!
Read any good books recently about culture or society? Let me know about them. Keep those comments coming!