Sunday, February 05, 2017
"Hillbilly Elegy" by J. D. Vance - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - A MUST READ
J.D. Vance published "Hillbilly Elegy" before the most recent presidential election, yet his memoir perfectly explains the phenomenon of young, white, blue collar workers from the Rust Belt embracing Donald Trump. Writing with the distance and perspective that a Yale Law degree has given him, Mr. Vance looks back on his upbringing in the hollers of Kentucky and the steel mills of Middletown, Ohio with insights that have relevance far beyond his family's saga.
The book's subtitle is "A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis." And this gem of a New York Times Bestseller delivers just what it promises. The author is ruthless in examining himself and his family of origin to plumb the depths of why those of Scots-Irish heritage who settled in Appalachia have had such a difficult time succeeding economically and culturally. His great -grandparents were tied in with the Hatfield and McCoy feud, and his grandmother in her younger years had killed at least one person who had crossed her. Vengeance, drug-abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, unemployment, and underemployment were all part of the tapestry of Vance's life as he grew up between Kentucky and the steel mills of Ohio.
Vance was close to flunking out of high school his freshman year - following the well worn path taken by many of his peers and relatives. His grandmother, sensing that J.D. was somehow different from the others, intervened and took him into her home. She kept a close watch on school attendance and study habits, and he pulled himself out of the downward death spiral. Despite the improvements, his grades were not good enough for him to gain admission to Ohio State, so he joined the Marines. He credits the USMC - along with his grandmother - for instilling in him discipline and a broader view of the world. After his time as a Marine, he matriculated at Ohio State and eventually found his way to Yale to study law.
Vance makes it clear that he was very fortunate to have been given the chance to catapult himself out of the doldrums of Hillbilly culture - with a lot of help and encouragement along the way. He examines with an unblinking eye the culture that turns young steel workers into victims who show up late or quit work, and then blame "the system" for holding them back. He opines that no government program or intervention can reverse the tide until individuals learn to take responsibility for themselves, for their actions, and for their economic well being. It is a riveting and well considered sociological analysis of what is happening in our land.
I have been recommending this book to anyone who will listen. Vance speaks across ideological and political chasms. His is a powerful and importance voice that should be heeded.