Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance tells at least three different stories.
It is, as the subtitle suggests, a story of a family and the culture that family has been part of – the American working class that increasingly finds itself on the losing end of globalization, economic change, the technological revolution, and government in the hands of a technocratic elite.
It is a story how a boy who had almost everything stacked against him climbed his way out of what could have been a life of destruction and despair.
And, without once mentioning the presidential election, it is a book that explains part of the appeal of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and the forces that seem to be tearing the United States apart politically and socially.
By telling the story of his own family – a candid, often painful story – Vance humanizes and gives a voice to a large segment of the American population that increasingly believes itself ignored, forgotten, and marginalized. He uses the word “hillbilly” to label it, but he uses it with love, understanding, and the recognition that he is one with the family and people he’s writing about.
After World War II, his grandparents moved from rural/small town Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio; his grandfather was recruited to work for Armco Steel. It was a dislocating move for the couple; while many people like them moved from the same and similar areas, it was also a move away from the large extended family they depended upon.
They had three surviving children, the youngest of whom was Vance’s mother. And she was the one who fell into the shrinking opportunity-drug abuse-multiple marriages trap. She would be married four or five times, with numerous boyfriends in between. Vance describes himself (and his older sister Lindsay) as fortunate in that none of the boyfriends or husbands were abusive towards the children.
“It would be years before I learned,” he writes, “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.”
While it appeared that Vance as he grew older would fall into the poverty cycle, one individual would be the rock that gave him the stability he needed – his grandmother. And you may never have met a grandmother quite like this one – she set her husband on fire while he was sleeping off too much alcohol (the children saved him); she excelled at the use of colorful and vulgar language; and if she threated to use a gun people generally understood that she was serious.
His grandmother provided stability, especially during his last three years of high school, but Vance himself was learning enough about himself to know it was better to join the Marines before going off to the unstructured environment of college life. And that experience helped provide the revelation that he was ultimately responsible for his own life.
“There is a cultural movement in the white working class,” he says, “to blame problems on society or the government and that movement gains adherents by the day.” He chose not to do that. After the Marines, he attended Ohio State University and then was accepted into and graduated from Yale Law School. (And his observations about both college life and Yale also describe part of the problems with America – the upper middle class and upper classes maintaining and living the unwritten rules by which their class rules.)
Hillbilly Elegy is a book one should read during an election year like this one, and read again after the election is over. It’s a remarkable story of determination and success.
Trump: Tribune of Poor White People - Rod Dreher interviews J. D. Vance.
Top photograph by David Cooper: Middletown, Ohio, where J.D. Vance was born and raised.