As previously noted by Bonnie, Hillbilly Elegy has been promoted as the book you must read to understand Trump voters. If that’s what you’re looking for, I think you will be disappointed. This book is mostly personal memoir with a liberal amount of social and political observation included. Given the fact that he’s worked in the Senate and written for David Frum, I wouldn’t be surprised if J.D. Vance is planning a political career in the future and this is his first autobiography telling his Horatio Alger story.
Of course, the story isn’t just about him, but the community he describes as his people. “I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition – their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” According to Vance, hillbilly culture includes fierce and often violent loyalty, a dedication to family and country, a dislike and suspicion of outsiders of all types. He argues that the cause and the potential cures of their poverty are complex, it isn’t simply access to jobs, it’s a culture that feels a lack of individual control and propensity to blame others.
Vance grew up in Middleton, Ohio. Many poor folks in Appalachia migrated to the Midwest for manufacturing jobs in the middle of the last century. By the time Vance is born in the 80s, the jobs are on their way to disappearing. In this environment, Vance had a terrifying childhood, a father who gave him up for adoption, a mother who eventually goes through numerous drug addictions, multiple step-fathers, poverty and violence. Like most kids that make it out of their circumstances he has a few adults that provide stability and love, in his case his grandmother Mamaw and grandfather Papaw, his aunt and his sister. The worst point is when his mother threatens his life and someone calls the police. She is charged, but Vance refuses to testify against her, for fear that he will be put into foster care. At that point his grandmother intervenes for good. He lives with her and she provides a stable environment for him. (A hilarious moment is her threatening to shoot the “bad” kids if he starts to hang out with them). Vance graduates from high school, recognizes he’s not ready for college and enlists in the Marines. He credits the Marines for teaching him lessons in how to be a successful adult: opening a bank account, shopping for credit, buying an affordable car. He graduates from the Ohio State University and goes to Yale law school. Once again he is lucky, a couple of people help him navigate the culture and customs of elite law firms and WASP etiquette.
Vance retains his hillbilly identity, and ridicules much of the elite culture. Fair enough, much of it is exclusionary and snobby. His hillbilly habits don’t help him in relationships, he often wants to strike out, argue, but Usha, his wife helps teach him how to cope. He admits that his own story doesn’t offer solutions to all people in his circumstances. He dismisses liberal policies out of hand. One thing that stood out to me is that so many of the poor families he described began with a pregnant teen-age girl. His mother was salutatorian of her class, but pregnancy prevented her from entering college. His grandmother was pregnant at 14. Access to pregnancy prevention is never raised by Vance or other conservatives. Can’t help but think about the difference Planned Parenthood has made for so many women.
Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting read. It does provide a more nuanced portrait of poor people in the rust belt than our current political discourse. No simple answers, but you know that.