Don’t know about you, but I’ve always been drawn to novels, memoirs and non-fiction narratives that unlock the key to unfamiliar places or people.
That was my thinking when I picked up “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” a New York Times bestseller.
I hoped I might gain insight into a subculture of Americans who’ve lately become the focus of national attention. I hoped I might understand a little better just what it is about being poor, white and rural in one of the country’s most economically depressed regions that makes people want to place their future in the hands of a wealthy, fear-mongering businessman and reality TV star living in Manhattan.
In fairness to author J.D. Vance, that’s not the reason he wrote “Hillbilly Elegy.” The idea for the book had already come together before the presidential primaries had begun and had nothing to do with Trump. Yet the book does provide a window into the psychology of the struggling white working class in Appalachia and neighboring Rust Belt states.
“There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself,” Vance says in the introduction.
Vance concedes the absurdity of writing a memoir at just 31 years of age. But as a Rust Belt refugee who escaped the cycle of poverty and violence in his extended family in Kentucky and Ohio and went on to the Marine Corps, Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he brings a fresh, clear-eyed perspective:
“I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”
I think the book has great value in these times. Vance is a good writer, honest and prescriptive in his analysis. He’s not arguing that poor whites deserve any more sympathy than anyone else. He’s not excusing the brawling, drinking, drug-taking ways of his dysfunctional family. He’s taking a hard look at social class from both ends of the spectrum — from poor folk living in the hollers of Kentucky and the industrial Midwest to Yale classmates born into a life of privilege and a sense of entitlement.
And in doing so, he holds the people in his world accountable for a litany of shortcomings:
Vance paints a grim portrait of himself — a Scots-Irish hillbilly — and others who inhabit the Greater Appalachian culture stretching from Alabama to Georgia in the South to Ohio in the North.
They don’t value education and their kids do poorly in school. They scream and yell and hit and punch each other. They smoke and drink too much and become drug addicts. They spend money on giant TVs and other luxuries, often using payday loans and high-interest credit cards, and declare bankruptcy when the bills come due.
They drop out of the labor force. They get fired for stealing or absenteeism. They choose to not to retrain or relocate for better opportunities. They live in social isolation, resentful of outsiders. And they point the finger at everyone but themselves.
“We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some unperceived unfairness,” Vance writes. “Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance –the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”
It’s not hard to see why folks like these would rally around someone, a fellow blame-shifter, promising to take them back to the days when jobs were easy to come by.
Vance spent his early years in Jackson, in the hills of impoverished eastern Kentucky. He moved with his mother, sister and grandparents to Middletown, Ohio, a now-decaying steel town filled with so many other Kentucky transplants they called it “Middletucky.”
His mother was hooked on drugs and went through several husbands and boyfriends while stealing family heirlooms and selling them to support her habit. J.D. credits his older sister and maternal grandparents for helping raise him amidst the chaos and instability.
He, too, was headed toward a life of underachievement in a community suffering from social and economic decline but was saved by three things: the encouragement provided by teachers at his public high school; the cocoon of love and support provided by his grandparents Mamaw and Papaw after he quit living with his mom; and a cousin’s advice to consider the Marine Corps.
The Corps instilled in young Vance a sense of discipline and self-worth and, for the first time, exposed him to people unlike himself. It was the key to enrolling in college and, from there, applying to Yale Law, a place where 95 percent of students come from the upper middle class. It was the place where he would marry a fellow Indian American student; land prestigious internships in Washington, D.C.; launch a successful legal career; and wind up in San Francisco working for a Silicon Valley investment firm.
So, Vance asks, why did he make it out when so many others don’t?
In short, it’s because he had a handful of individuals in his community who empowered him with a sense that he could control his own destiny. And, it’s because government offered plenty of resources in the form of public schools and universities, federal financial aid for college, and Social Security benefits for his grandparents.
Toward the end of the book, Vance cites a study that revealed there is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites about their chances at bettering themselves economically. More than half of blacks, Latinos and college-educated whites expect that their children will do better than they have, the study found. But among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that view.
In the aftermath of Trump’s improbable victory, Vance provides a timely counter-narrative to the rhetoric of modern conservatives. He’s seen friends from Middletown blossom while others succumb to drugs, prison and premature parenthood.
“What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their lives.” Vance says. “Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
Imagine that. A young conservative from the Midwest refusing to join in on the government-bashing and willing to point to individual responsibility as a key to rising above life’s circumstances. We’ve seen generations of immigrants do it. Let’s see if the white working class, unburdened by skin color, can do it.
Vance has done a remarkable job in writing “Hillbilly Elegy.” With a tone of humility throughout, he offers hope that others might also escape the legacy of violence, poverty and despair that characterizes his part of America.
Photograph: Naomi McCulloch
Read an excellent review of the book in The New York Times.