Every year my book club members submit 2-3 suggestions for us to tackle for the upcoming year; we all vote and then the top choices make the cut. I remember seeing J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis described as something we should read to understand how Trump was elected. I was still raw and reeling from the election so I voted against this book. I was sick to death of trying to empathize with people who voted against their own interests for a megalomaniacal moron with no experience, no actual plans, and no decency. Screw those people, they got us into this mess, they can enjoy the consequences. I’ve calmed down a bit at this point and a friend told me nah, this book isn’t about Trump at all. So I gave it a shot. I am glad I read it, though I wouldn’t say it has amazed me as much as it has some. I think it’s definitely a topic worth examining – how have we as a country abandoned some of our own citizens and what can we do to encourage them to improve their own lives?
J.D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, the son of an addict mother and an absentee father. His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, were heavily involved in he and his sister’s lives; Vance credits their interventions for anything good in his life. Mamaw and Papaw were hillbillies from northern Kentucky who moved to Middletown to give their three children a better life than they had in their home town of Jackson. Throughout the meandering memoir, we learn about J.D.’s love and admiration for the quirky, sometimes violent, relatives. He also details many of the horrible aspects of being raised by an addict and what that does to a young person. Luckily for J.D., his grandparents were determined that he and his sister have a chance, in spite of their mother’s failings. Vance grew up and eventually landed himself in the Marines, and later, Yale Law School. The memoir is his effort to explain how much of an anomaly he is and how many other children like him there are in the Rust Belt and Appalachia.
I think for the most part this book is a success. It calls attention to the fact that there are a lot of struggling working class white people in the middle of the country that are often overlooked, or misunderstood. What I didn’t like about it is the meandering and repetitive nature of his feelings. This book was short, but it could have been shorter. I personally have experienced growing up around addicts – at times Vance’s references made it seem like he thinks this kind of childhood is limited to the struggling working class. I was solidly upper middle class my whole life. Money doesn’t buy safety from childhood trauma. To be fair, I don’t think Vance was actually saying that, and the point of the book is to focus on a certain set of people, I just felt like he was looking at outside lives through rose-colored glasses. I don’t know how much I really learned from Vance’s memoir that I didn’t already know. In high school, our church youth group did summer service trips, two of which were to areas much like Middletown or Jackson. I encountered many folks who had the tools to improve their lot in life but chose not to – people in West Virginia that during the times of year when mining was possible bought boats and big screen TV’s, but lived in shacks that didn’t have running water. There is definitely something to examine in this culture, but I am not sure Vance (or I) feel hopeful much will change. I think my favorite part of this memoir was Mamaw. She is the best person in Vance’s life and she sounds like the most awesome grandmother possible. I loved both of mine, but wow, Mamaw was amazing.
Vance’s story is admirable – that he can look back at such a young age and really examine what makes him tick, what he needs to work on, and how he got to such a good place given his meager beginnings – is a testament to the good hard work can do. His memoir is a valuable tool in examining cultures different from the ones I encountered growing up, I am just not so sure he offers up any real solutions or has a larger point to make.