Books - Hillbilly Elegy
Sam Burnham, Curator
This will be a two part segment. Part one will be a review of the book itself. The second segment is commentary on the subject matter. J.D. Vance has gotten some criticism for this book. That topic, as well as some of the content of the book itself will be covered in an upcoming post.
This is another one where I'm a bit late to the show. 2016 saw the release of J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy. I've seen both acclaim and disgust in reaction to this book. I finally picked it up myself earlier this month and have just finished it. The subtitle to the book is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. That is a fitting descriptor for the book. Vance sets out to tell the story of an entire culture - Hillbillies - through the story of his family and their hometowns.
His is a rags to riches story. A young man born into a poor hillbilly family that had migrated from rural Kentucky to a small industrial town in Ohio. Growing up he lived the life of the ailing white working class, a life that exposed him to drugs, violence, hopelessness, and fear. But he also was the benefactor of some close family ties, loyalty that bordered on insanity, and a lot of other good things that you can see he occasionally feels the sting of nostalgia over. It's a love/hate relationship that he seems to have with his past.
That seems to be where he gets criticized the most. But I'll cover that in the second installment.
Vance is a gifted writer and obviously a brilliant man. He has penned a work that is criticized at times as elitist but that is written in a voice that is easily read. He uses language of the common people and goes out of his way to explain any concepts that might be foreign to those not familiar with them. He presents statistics and studies in a tone that seemed, from my vantage point, sympathetic to the subjects involved.
The "characters" in the story (real people with real problems in a real narrative) keep you engaged. There are heroes and villains, friends and foes - sometimes these lines blur. That just reality. Read this book as a human being. Bring your sympathy and your empathy and an open mind. Vance presents troubled people in a way that is often troubling. But that is the plight of the people of the hillbilly culture. He presents some very real problems - most of which have no obvious solution.
His own personal story carries him to the Marine Corps, land wars in Asia, The Ohio State University, and then Yale University Law School. This road carries him and, for much of the end of the book, the story out of Jackson and Middletown, out of hillbilly culture, away from his family, away from those places he grew up in, away to a new life. But he also talks about how his w=early experiences followed him to his new life and how he has had to struggle to find a continued escape from chaos.
I rated this one as five stars at Goodreads. I'll say here and now that I loved this book and hated it equally. One reason I want to do a second post for commentary is to buy me a bit more time to digest what I read. This is not a happy ending for everyone. In fact, it's a bit scary. It touches on the state of our present politics and the future of the white working class. It is blunt, straightforward and honest. There are some parallels between the hillbillies of Kentucky and the crackers from further to the south, into Georgia and Florida. A lot of the issues raised hit at the heart of why ABG lives to begin with. Mostly my simultaneous love and hate seem, to me, to mirror Vance's own feelings on his hillbilly upbringing. I've seen this duality before. I've seen the cohabitation of nostalgia and post-traumatic stress. I think I understand where Vance is coming from.
If you have not yet read Hillbilly Elegy, I'd highly recommend it. It is a beautifully written emotional roller coaster ride.
And please check back for the commentary.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire