When my friend, Matthew, tells me to read something, I usually read it. When Matthew physically hands me the book and tells me it’s the best, most important book he’s read all year, I definitely read it. Such was the case with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. On the surface, it’s not the kind of book I gravitate toward: a contemporary memoir by a young man detailing his and his family’s experiences growing up poor and white in middle America. But in my effort to diversify my reading this year, it’s a perfect example of the kind of book I wouldn’t normally think to pick up but absolutely should.
J.D. Vance is a lawyer, former marine, and Ohio State and Yale Law School grad building a life with his wife in the Bay Area and only a few years older than me. In terms of privilege, he checks all the boxes: straight, white, Protestant, male. J.D. is also a child of the Rust Belt, grandson of hill people, son of a single, troubled mother, and near high-school drop out. He is the symbol of his grandparents successes in social and economic upward mobility, but as he shares, those successes were fraught, hard-fought, and sometimes nearly lost with alarming ease.
His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, grew up in the hollers of Kentucky, got married young, and moved to steel-town Middletown, Ohio right after World War II to escape the abject poverty of Appalachia and build a better life for their family. And that they did. They bought a house and a car, had 3 children, and worked up to become solidly middle-class. However, they also brought with them the attitudes, traditions, values, and culture of their poor, white, Appalachian upbringing, which created extreme challenges and even failures in maintaining both those values and their middle-class life. Honor and family pride are paramount, and they would defend them to the point of violence, even death. The hard work valued by his grandparents’ generation combined with the entitlement and privilege of whiteness led to a next generation that struggled with drugs and alcohol, job instability, unhealthy relationships, violence, and accountability. And for many, the cycle continued spiraling down in subsequent generations, leading to increasing alienation and fewer ways out. These are generalities, of course, but generalities identified and experienced by J.D. himself. On the flip side, the fierceness of the hillbilly mindset also led to J.D.’s grandparents providing him as stable a home as possible while dealing with their own challenges and his grandmother essentially browbeating him into finishing school and becoming the Yale-educated, Bay Area-living lawyer he is today. As experienced by J.D., it is a culture in crisis desperate to right itself.
J.D.’s memoir is his attempt to make sense of that clash and that crisis, while providing a sensitive, honest, and discerning “sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion” (Senior, NY Times). J.D. peppers his anecdotes with statistics, research, and expert analysis on the crisis of the white working poor and the effect that it has had on American society, particularly politics, as a whole. This book was not written to explain how Trump happened, but I certainly have a much clearer understanding for why and how Trump happened and, I hope, more compassion for those very real people who found in him an answer to their plight.
As I was writing this review, I found this blog post by Joshua Wilkey on his blog, This Appalachian Life. Wilkey, like J.D., grew up the child of a poor, white, single mother in Appalachia who never quite achieved the success and stability she worked so hard to get. He takes umbrage with J.D.’s assertion with the fact that in order for the plight of the rural white poor to improve, they must not rely on the government but instead examine themselves and work toward a shift in culture. He likens J.D.’s analysis to almost-victim blaming and questions J.D.’s methodology and factual support. I don’t necessarily agree with some of his assertions regarding JD’s process or his accusation of victim-blaming. J.D. and Wilkey are, in essence, making the same point regarding the need for accountability, just locating that need differently, and I suspect the most effective actual location is multi-located including individuals, cultural centers, and the government. I think of Wilkey’s blog as evidence of the differences and nuances within seemingly similar cultural experiences that provides a good counterbalance to J.D.’s admittedly specific account of his own family’s experiences.
Due to it’s popularity, there is a danger of people holding up Hillbilly Elegy as “THIS! This is THE book! The key to understanding the rural white working poor!” And that’s not the case. It can help and certainly has helped many people, including me, attempt to better understand a home grown culture that feels incredibly foreign in this day and age. The benefit of Hillbilly Elegy and the various responses to it is not that it explains anything, but that it forces a conversation about what the real experience of the working poor in America is (and that it is clearly not universal), and that conversation is shining a more realistic light on the successes and failures of our social policies and institutions. There is no key, however, no easy answer that so many people seem to feel this book can (or should) be. That is not to say you shouldn’t read Hillbilly Elegy. You absolutely should. However, it is incumbent upon us to read works like Hillbilly Elegy and take them as a starting point for further learning, conversation, understanding, and growth. We live in scary times, but in nurturing rather than destroying relationships and approaching our fellow human beings with openness and humility, we can find a way forward.
For a perspective on race in these conversations, please see The Atlantic’s October 2017 issue for The First White President by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I firmly believe is one of the most important, if not the most important, writers of race of the 21st century.
Senior, Jennifer. “Review: In ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ a Tough Love Analysis of the Poor Who Back Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Aug. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/books/review-in-hillbilly-elegy-a-compassionate-analysis-of-the-poor-who-love-trump.html?_r. Accessed 12 May 2017.