Published by Harper
Publication date: June 28th 2016
Genres: Book Clubs, Debut, Memoir, Non-fiction
It’s been a very long time since I read a book that has left me so confounded, so unable to say clearly how it made me feel. That I’ve recently read such a book and that its non-fiction is even more unusual. It may be that going into J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy I had misconceptions about what I was going to read. Over and over I’d been told that it would explain why Trump got elected and what’s happening in America and it does do that, but in a way that has little to do with politics and, thankfully, with no mention of Trump. On a macro level, it’s about society and culture, specifically the culture of the working class in the Appalachians and the Rust Belt. On a micro level, it’s about Vance’s family and begins in Kentucky, where they originally lived, but is largely set in southwestern Ohio, where Vance’s grandparents went in search of the American Dream. A dream that never materialized, instead settling into one slow burn of a nightmare after the other.
The basics of Vance’s story are: an unstable childhood, so-so high school experience, four years in the Marines, graduated from Ohio State in 2 ½ years, went to Yale Law School and was an editor at the Yale Law Review, married his college sweetheart, and at the time the memoir was published was living in San Francisco and working as a venture capitalist. A pretty staggering trajectory, so what’s the problem? The problem is that the odds against his success were almost incalculable. Even getting out of Middletown, Ohio was more than anyone else in his family had ever done.
Using his family history Vance illustrates the larger theme in Hillbilly Elegy. His grandfather was a violent drunk, so much of his mother’s young life was spent running or hiding from him. The emotional instability and the need for a father figure meant she moved through men like water, with over five husbands before Vance graduated from high school. She was, and still is, a drug addict. His father put him up for adoption and relinquished all claim to him. Papaw and Mamaw were the only stability he had but as they got older they could not care for both Vance and his sister, meaning that while their mother was in a treatment facility for the first time, he lived alone with his fourteen-year-old sister caring for both of them for months. It wasn’t until he moved in with Mamaw in his sophomore year of high school and stayed with her through graduation that he finally experienced the stability every child needs. Mamaw was the epitome of tough love, but she was also the person who believed in him most.
Where Hillbilly Elegy moves beyond a personal memoir is as Vance pans out past his family to share that they were not isolated in their experiences. Everyone Vance encountered in Middletown was either living with crime, addiction, violence, and under/unemployment. Sometimes all at once. Chaos was the norm. He uses statistics and research carefully in his narrative, but it still shocks, like this one:
In 1970, 25% of white children lived in a neighborhood with poverty rates above 10%. In 2000, that number was 40%.
He also cites a tool used by academic psychologists called the ACEs, which stands for “adverse childhood experiences”. They are seven data points that, when occurring routinely in a child’s life are traumatic enough to shape the child for life. They don’t even include the extreme of physical abuse, but are things like: living with an addict; being sworn at, insulted or humiliated by parents; and seeing a loved one being abused. In studies done, about 40% of working class people grew up with multiple occurrences of ACEs. Thinking of the societal impact of that is enough to freeze my brain.
Vance’s story is uplifting, but Hillbilly Elegy is anything but. He makes no claim to be a sociologist or mental health professional but from his intimate vantage point the picture is bleak. As a people, Vance presents the hillbilly demographic as a mass of torturous contradictions: conservative but exhibiting behavior that doesn’t mesh with conservative values, anti-government but more than willing to allow the government to subsidize their lives, deeply religious but don’t go to church, extreme family loyalty matched by extreme family violence. It makes for reading that pushes and pulls to the point of mental paralysis. Is the individual responsible or not?
Then conservative Republicans, though he is one, come under fire:
Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers…What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message on the right is increasingly: it’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.
Vance is not flip-flopping in the way slippery politicians do. Rather, he is being judicious and presenting both sides—as he has seen them. But where do they leave us? The length of this review is evidence to my confusion over Hillbilly Elegy. It may be because of current circumstances that I finished the book feeling weary. Because this memoir, this credible look at a wide swath of America, is about what has brought us where we are and it doesn’t fill me with hope. That there is a large portion of the country that is completely alienated and angry with no interest in engaging is scary. I don’t know how Hillbilly Elegy will impact other readers, but Vance’s story and his writing make the physical act of reading it easy. It’s the mental and emotional exertion that’s hard, but it is a book that will engender a lot of thought and, hopefully, positive discussion.