Staff review by Chris Saliba
An intimate portrait of a troubled and complex working class family which doubles as an eye-opening look into the heart of poor, white America.
J. D Vance's family originated from the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. Of Scots-Irish descent, the Vances are proud to describe themselves as “hillbillies”. White, poor and working class, the family moved to the industrial midwest and settled in Midtown, Ohio. They were economic migrants in search of factory work, trying to improve their fortunes. Despite aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle, the Vances held tight to their hillbilly heritage. Through a mix of hard work and some good luck, J.D Vance managed to study law at Yale (an unheard of achievement for someone of his background) and find a well paying job. His contemporaries weren't so lucky. Far too many found themselves permanently on welfare, fathering children they abandoned, chronically addicted to drugs or in jail.
Hillbilly Elegy is written as a personal memoir, but it can also be read as a piece of cultural anthropology. It's the voice of disenfranchised white working class America, written with calmness, elegance and clarity. By any stretch, J.D Vance had a terrible upbringing. His mother was a drug addict who couldn't maintain a stable relationship. The young J.D had no reliable father figure when he was growing up. His one saving grace was his grandmother (“Mamaw”) and grandfather (“Papaw”) who stepped in to look after him at an early age. Vance describes them as both loyal and devoted, yet tough, frightening (to outsiders at least) and borderline crazy. They carried guns and weren't afraid to threaten people with them. Quick to take offense, they had a strict honor code. These qualities could be good, offering strong protection (at one point Vance writes “Hillbilly justice never failed me”), but there were also serious contradictions. The honor code meant their women were not to be demeaned in any way by outsiders, but hillbilly culture could be horribly sexist. They'd shoot if a bad word was said about a mother or a sister, but the men thought nothing of cheating on their wives and treating them poorly.
The portraits of Mamaw and Papaw are quite extraordinary, like something out a classic Southern novel by Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers. Their talk is often coarse and full of profanities. They don't mince words. But there's also a lot of humour and warmth. Vance reveals nice subtleties about their characters, like when Papaw would secretly cry about things that upset him, or Mamaw would show her vulnerability, despite her tough-as-nails facade.
A turning point came in young J.D's life when he decided to enlist in the Marine Corps. It was the Marines that taught him discipline and self-belief. During his four year stint he kept in constant contact with Mamaw. She wrote him everyday, telling him to believe in himself and maintaining her solid support. If J.D hadn't had his grandparents and later the Marines, he would no doubt have fallen by the wayside like other poor whites. This is the whole point of Hillbilly Elegy, to give an intimate portrait of poor working class lives, from someone who has lived it, who knows and still loves the culture and its people, despite their manifest faults. This is a book that elicits sympathy and understanding for people very different from ourselves.
What's the take-away then for those wanting to understand the current state of American politics? Trust in Barack Obama is low amongst working class whites. Many think he's a Muslim who wasn't born in America. They see an urbane, polished politician with a neutral accent who has nothing to say to them. If some fault can be laid at the feet at politics, it's that politicians like Barack Obama didn't reach out enough. The main problems, however, might be intractable. There is a deep pessimism amongst working class whites. They have simply given up hope and prefer to blame government and the media for their problems. If there is a way out, Vance believes working class whites will have to drag themselves up and take more responsibility. This is no easy task as the problems facing these communities are deeply entrenched, from generation to generation. For example, Vance says he grew up thinking that excelling at school work was demeaning because it was for “sissies”. These sorts of attitudes are hard to shift.
Hillbilly Elegy makes for absorbing reading. This is a memoir written with great maturity and self-reflection, by someone still very young (Vance is thirty-one). If you want to understand the mindset of a whole class of Americans, then this is indispensable reading.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance. Published by HarperCollins ISBN: 9780008220556 RRP: $32.99