Monday, August 14, 2017

Book Review - Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
HarperCollins 2016
Format? Hardback
Source? from the Library

Why?  I'm a sucker for cultural analysis and memoirs...and studied working class literacy in grad school.

Title? Being from the deep South, Mississippi, I'm very well acquainted with the "hillbilly elegy" as it home state follows me everywhere.  I was also aware of the Appalachian Hill people's struggles and the opioid epidemic that threatens not just their livelihoods but their lives...and is beginning to threaten the lives of many across the U.S.  Hillbillies were lured in and are being snuffed out...are snuffing themselves out...they are dying...and there's no way out for many.
Cover?  Not really anything special...I didn't see the American flag until I looked back at the cover to type up my reflections here...but maybe that's exactly the point.

What Now? Return the book to the library, pay my rather large overdue fine, and then buy the dang book like I should have in the first place.

Golden Lines

"The people of Breathitt hated certain things, and they didn't need the law to snuff them out." (16)

Mamaw never spent a day in high school.  She'd given birth to and buried a child before she could legally drive a car. (35)

Even in death, Papaw had one foot in Ohio and another in the holler (105)

To my grandparents, the goal was to get out of Kentucky and give their kids a head start.  The kids, in turn, were expected to do something with that head start.  It didn't quite work out that way. (36)

Seeing people insult, scream, and sometimes physically fight was just a part of our life.  After a while, you didn't even notice it. (73)

Mom would officially retain custody, but from that day forward I lived in her house only when I chose to - and Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw's gun.  This was hillbilly justice, and it didn't fail me. (78)

The people who ran the courthouse were different from us.  The people subjected to it were not. (79)

One of the questions I loathed, and that adults always asked, was whether I had any brothers or sisters.  When you're a kid, you can't wave your hand, say, "It's complicated," and move on. (81)

The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family's and a community's life.  When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in.  I needed reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos. (87)

Mom flailing and screaming in the street was the culmination of things I hadn't seen.  She'd begun taking prescription narcotics not long after we moved to Preble County. I believe the problem started with a legitimate prescription, but soon enough, Mom was stealing from her patients and getting so high that turning an emergency room into a skating rink seemed like a good idea (113) 

Mamaw could spew venom like a Marine Corps drill instructor, but what she saw in our community didn't just piss her off.  It broke her heart. Behind the drugs, and the fighting matches, and the financial struggles, these were people with serious problems, and they were hurting. (142)

Depending on her mood, Mamaw was a radical conservative or a European-style social Democrat...I quickly realized that in Mamaw's contradictions lay great wisdom. (142)

It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America.  Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith (145)

Though we sing the praises of social mobility, it has its downsides.  The term necessarily implies a sort of movement - to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.  And you can't always control the parts of your old life from which you drift. (206)

But there is enormous value in what economists call social capital.  It's a professor's term, but the concept is pretty simple: The networks of people and institutions around us have real economic value.  They connect us to the right people, ensure we have opportunities, and impart valuable information.  Without them, we're going it alone. (214)

Whether I made it (the cut for membership in the Yale Law School Journal) or not isn't the point.  What mattered was that, with a professor's help, I had closed the information gap.  It was like I learned to see. (217)

Nothing compares to the fear that you're becoming the monster in your closet. (224)


J.D. Vance should have ended up like all the others who grew up around him in poverty, with drug addictions, and jobless.  He should have been "stuck"; however, with the fierceness of the people around him, he was able to move out and up.  His story should end with graduating from Yale Law School, and he should be considered a successful story of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps.  The problem with that stereotype is that it doesn't take into consideration the consequences growing up within a failing culture that is America's white working class.  The idea of "just getting out" isn't as simple as many want it to be.  The crisis that Vance describes in Appalachia isn't one that can be shaken off and forgotten.  Vance does an incredible job of showing that to readers.  Upward mobility isn't just a social climb that can be affected by geography.  There are much deeper issues within which to delve if we are to address the crisis of working class whites, including psychological, cultural, social, medical, and educational issues to name only a few.  Yes, J.D. Vance is a success.  Yes, he made it out.  But, his story and many others like it were far from over as they crossed state lines.     
What I Liked

The historical details - Appalachian Regional Commission/ Lyndon Johnson
Jackson, KY to Ohio via Route 23
the migratory flow between Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan
growing up in the "holler" catching "minners" and "crawdads"
Kentucky coal country
Hatfields and McCoys in Appalachia compared to The Sopranos

Ron Selby, the Advanced Math teacher - "I had that kid in class; he's not smart enough to make a functioning bomb."

Mamaw - As harsh as Mamaw Blanton's language (conversation with J.D. about why he was not gay made me laugh out loud, snort and spit my coffee fashion ;) ) and life could be, she loved her grandchildren...and had a truly soft heart for anyone in need.  She definitely lived the "take care of everybody" lifestyle and loved to "spend time with those babies."
Mamaw made sure J.D. had anything he needed, any time, any place.  
What an unconditional love this woman had for her grandson.

Papaw - Despite his "bullshits" and his grouchiness, he never met a hug or kiss that he didn't welcome. (108)
Papaw also loved J.D.  In fact, he was J.D.'s father since his own biological father nor any of his mother's potential candidates could or would step up.  Papaw taught J.D. how to shoot so well that in the Marine Corp, J.D.  qualified with an M16 rifle as an expert.  He also played math games with J.D. after a young J.D. came home one day worried about his lack of math skills.  
When Papaw died, J.D. spoke at his funeral:
I stood up in that funeral home resolved to tell everyone just how important he was.  "I never had a dad," I explained.  "But Papaw was always there for me, and he taught me the things that men needed to know." 

Discussion of Religion - Organized religion was not something J.D.'s family nor many of the other families he knew spent much time on.  This fact calls into question yet another stereotype about working class southern "conservatives."  Despite the stereotype, J.D.'s biological father and his new family were the only real religious families that J.D. ever knew. 
Mamaw reassured J.D. that God never leaves your side.  She believed that without a doubt, but she also believed that God helps the man who helps himself.   
Mamaw believed it was fine to pray to God for help with your problems, but you best be ready to do the work on your part as well.

Psychological focus - Once J.D. became successful and "escaped" the trap, he had to deal with the conundrum of still seeing in himself some of the very behaviors he had worked so hard to get away from.  Especially where relationships were concerned, J.D. had to re-learn much of what had been unconsciously taught to him during his childhood.  
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. presents rich research and sources to explain this phenomenon:
"Significant stress in early childhood results in hyperresponsive or chronically activated physiologic stress response, along with increased potential for fear and anxiety.
the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated...the switch flipped indefinitely." (228)

Educational focus - Even though J.D. received access to higher education via his service in the military, he needed more...and that doesn't mean just money.  What so many see as common knowledge parts of the educational system are huge stumbling blocks to students who come in from the outside.  The Ivory Tower isn't famous for welcoming outsiders and is well-known to throw gatekeeping devices in students' way.  J.D. wasn't asking for special favors either.  He honestly didn't realize what he even needed to ask for help with.  Academics wasn't the problem.  The largest roadblock was the system itself - institutional, political, and social...and much of it unconscious or accidental...the roadblocks of privilege.

J.D. Vance's book made me pull back out some of my old textbooks on working class literacy...I haven't done that since I finished my last degree because I was exhausted with academia.  
For the first time in many years, my research brain is piqued, and I'm ready to re-visit some of those theories.

What I Didn't Like

There really wasn't anything about Vance's memoir that I didn't like as far as the book itself...there were more than a few things that made me very sad that I had to think about, analyze, and really process before writing my review.  But, again, I think that's Vance's point.

I wasn't crazy about J.D.'s mama...I don't "fault" her really, but I don't "forgive" her either.  
He was just a child, and he needed his mama.  But, she wasn't there.  She had a lot of extenuating circumstances, but that doesn't change the fact that she wasn't there.
I was and am beyond glad that J.D. had other people around him to take care of him.  
J.D.'s mom did have a library card and made sure he had access to books.  She herself became a nurse and cared deeply about "enterprises of the mind"...she was one of those moms who got carried away "revamping" a science fair project. 
Her own lack of education about how a man should treat a woman was unfortunately handed down to her own children tenfold and exacerbated by her quest to find a suitable father for J.D. and Lindsay..."adventures" which pulled them further and further away from being able to live within a stable family environment.
And, then, there were the drugs.  Drugs for which she was probably given a prescription but very quickly lost control of.
Addiction is a huge issue...a crisis of epidemic proportions.

Overall Recommendation
Americans tend to have pretty egocentric views about the world and even within our own borders.  Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy reminded me a lot of Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle, two books I think everybody needs to experience.  

The Author

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