As part of my 2017 Reading Challenge (which is reimagined this year in a 2018 Reading Plan, following the lessons I learned from reading just under 100 books), I intended to read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis.This book found its way onto my radar when everyone (particularly on the internet) was losing their collective minds that Donald J. Trump had been elected President of the United States of America. 1 year into this new presidency, the world has not yet ended, but at the same time the Trump era has been unexpected, controversial, polarising, hilarious, devastating and divisive. Getting around to reading Hillbilly Elegy, then, still felt timely and necessary.
This little book charts the story of Vance’s family, intertwined with local and national vignettes, and some reflection on the author’s role in the Iraq war. Vance grew up in broken homes with a strong grandmother (Mamaw) being a key influence – in a culture that we might call ‘hillbilly’. Part of the appeal and immense value of this book – personal stories aside – is that it opens a window into the experience of the white poor in America – something quite difficult to do. This is a self-aware piece of writing – a perfect story and challenge to a culture obsessed with labels and self-defitinion:
“In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the colour of someone’s skin – ‘black people’, ‘Asians’, ‘white privilege’. Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs [White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, ed.] 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 labourers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers 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 neighbours, friends, and family”
Vance, as an insider (With the fascinating story of being a college graduate, former US Marine, and Yale Law School grad – he isn’t ‘normal’ for his family or ‘culture’) opens up this world – not at the expense of other minorities and other challenged groups of people, but in a way that invites understanding and the asking of hard questions. Throughout, there are brilliant questions regarding the way we arrange our society – from meritocracy to why white teens don’t stay in jobs, from payday loans to the role of religion in American politics and public life.
Despite the harshness of the reality being described, and the pain of some of the stories Vance shares, this is a book that is a delight to read. It is an uncomfortable read – even with my national/class/educational/spiritual detachment – but it is fascinating. Not in the way that people crane their necks at a car crash, but in a way that helped me, at least, to understand why some people might vote for Trump, dislike Obama, or be multiple-generations of alcoholic/unemployed/broken-homed. Hillbilly Elegy reads like a good novel, and is written with the skill of a good essayist. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who struggles to understand other people, and especially to folk attempting to understand the America that fills our news channels today.