Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review - Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

The young writer brought up some very interesting points about the economic and social situation in America's Rust Belt but very few answers as to how to deal with the enormous problems in the area. Like the author, I'm not sure there are any easy answers. One of the many points I found interesting was in the last chapter, where he acknowledges the enormous amount of help he received through his life from many people, especially the support of his grandparents. I often hear people that consider themselves self-made claim that they never received help from anyone. I suppose it depends on if you think help is only financial.  Branching out from this was the question of how to offer support to a social group that is isolated in poverty with few examples of success as inspiration and few mentors to show the way out of the crippling situation. Vance points out how little he knew about the world how to succeed, even after a stint in the military and four years of college. He also mentions how helpful knowing the right people can be in career and life choices.

The constant message that Vance received as a child was that he and his culture weren't good enough and that the choices of the white working class don't matter. His grandmother, an amazing woman who did her best despite struggling with an alcoholic husband and children with enormous issues,  tried to counteract this idea but was only partly successful. Vance's time in the Marine Corps did the most to change his attitude, although he constantly reinforces that he felt himself lucky to have had the support of his grandparents and I think he is right. Their support, along with the many other people that helped him throughout his life, helped him overcome a childhood of trauma due to an absent father and a mother who never overcame drug addiction.

This is not a book with answers to the problems of the working poor in America, but I think the book gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the complicated attitudes and issues. There are some valid criticisms of the book; some think he blames the poor for their own misfortunes and he does have a pessimistic view of how much the government can help. What stands out to me is the despair of the families and town, the struggles with addiction and hopelessness. At the end of the book things have deteriorated, both in the town and in his mother's personal life. To me, doing something to help has got to be better than standing by and doing nothing. 


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