I’ve finally caught up with J.D. Vance’s much discussed bestseller, and I’m glad I did. Vance’s memoir recounts growing up in Ohio and Kentucky, in a family on the lower rungs of the income and class scale. He spends a lot of time and colour painting his family’s roots back in Kentucky, and then traces his parents’ move to suburban Ohio in search of a better life. Despite the physical move, Vance writes that his family retains their ‘hillbilly’ values and are still culturally similar to their kin back in Kentucky. While this provides them with some structure and sense of belonging, Vance’s overall theme is that many of these are negative values- keeping problems hidden, a preference for resolving disputes physically, a distrust of ‘elites’ and higher education- and are hurting them more than helping. Although Vance takes to education as his route to escape the addiction, violence, early death and poverty that await many of his peers, he makes clear that he had to fight the instincts that his upbringing had nurtured in order to obtain that education.
Beyond his personal story and circumstances, Vance extends his theory on the damaging nature of hillbilly values beyond his family- his thesis is that this holds true for the thousands of other transplanted Kentuckians who made similar moves to his family. The biggest criticism I remember seeing before I read Vance’s book is that he has taken too much liberty in assuming that his own personal experience and family story can be generalized to so many other people. While I understand this critique, I appreciate that Vance has stated it so plainly- it fosters discussion of broader topics. I also appreciate that Vance is not shy about appointing some blame for failure back onto these communities themselves. While there is little doubt that globalization and automation have had significant negative impacts on the manufacturing belt communities, the pandering to the poor white men in these communities- who don’t seem to recognize that they benefit from white male privilege, even in poverty- is one of my biggest pet peeves.
Finally, I can’t finish this review without comparing it to Tara Westover’s Educated. It feels like it should be a direct comparison- both books are about achieving/ acquiring an education in rural America despite the circumstances the author/memoirist was born into. Now that I’ve sat with both of them for a while, I am more struck by their differences. While Vance is certainly writing a memoir, his themes critique larger cultural forces and invoke a call for change- his generalizations are political, and tied into the current American political climate. Conversely, Westover’s book is more intimate and harder to reach broader social conclusions on- it stands on its own as her personal journey. I’m glad I read them both, and they were both worth my time.
CRB11 Bingo: #TrueStory- this is J.D. Vance’s memoir.