Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance was published just months before the 2016 election.
Many have claimed that this book is essential in understanding the outcome of that election, and understanding why poor, working class, white Americans are feeling the way they are feeling.
That was part of why I wanted to read this book. I also was looking forward to getting insight into a demographic in America I'm not personally familiar with. And coming from someone who essentially "made it," I had a little faith it would be accurate. Not just something academic, but personal and capturing the nuances that an outsider might not consider. J.D. Vance grew up in a poor Rust Belt town, and despite what statistics will tell you his future would look like, he ended up a graduate of Yale Law School. I was interested to read about what he felt helped him beat the odds, and understand the plight of the poor in Appalachia in a context that wasn't strictly economics and government intervention or, lack of intervention.
This book certainly lived up to my expectations. Vance does not shy away from the less flattering aspects of Hillbilly culture. He talks about the cycle of poverty, but he doesn't chalk it up to a lack of jobs. He expands on what is stopping these people from getting the jobs that are out there. He calls out the parts of Hillbilly culture that aren't pretty, but have somehow become ingrained in the culture having continued on for generations. I got the impression that many people might not even realize how damaging some of these habits are.
He talks about the work ethic. Young men who want jobs, but "not that one." Young women who continuously skip work, without giving any notice. How is any employer supposed to continue and pay someone for a job they are not doing. He even points out how so many surveys show that the working class is working the hardest, but in Appalachia, he's not seeing anyone look for or try to maintain jobs. He mentions having known far too many "welfare queens." It's not the only time he mentions that Hillbilly culture has aspects of it, where people are not being honest with themselves.
This is a huge reckoning to come to terms with. It is not easy to be self reflective, and it is especially difficult to take a look at our negative traits. To be able to admit that we are holding ourselves back, rather than find excuses, can be quite painful.
With this memoir, Vance's has an opportunity to help break the cycle. By presenting his outlook and acknowledging the things that fell into place, making it possible for him to break out of that Hillbilly mold and become something more, Vance provides a chance for others to be aware. Rather than give in to what many in his hometown, and towns like it, might think is the inevitable, there is now an opportunity to be more self aware. To gain a holistic view of what is going on in the Rust Belt, there is an opportunity to open themselves up to the same type of self reflection, and realize which parts of their behavior are holding them back.
As I read this book, and I came across these chapters that dealt with how Hillbilly Culture needs to change, I wondered, are the people who need to read this, reading it? With so much of the book focused on how education is not encouraged at home, and this idea that most people don't participate in school work or even plan on higher education, would any Hillbilly even read this book?
How would they respond to this book? Would there be outrage at having their most negative traits brought out into the light? Would some of that outrage be head off if the message were coming from someone local? Would there be more reception to the message than when it was coming from an outsider?
These are the questions that consumed my mind as I read this book. And as I researched the reception of the book, I found that it was divided politically; what the conservatives think and what the liberals think. There was nothing to mention how the subjects of this book felt about the author's assessment. Ironically, even in documenting the reception of this book, the poor, white, working class seems to have been left behind, again.
My opinion: this was a good book to have read. I think it fostered empathy with a group that many of us probably think of strictly in terms of economic policy. Do I think this is the book that can explain the outcome of the 2016 election, the way some of the reviews suggested? Not entirely. I think it gives some insight into the unrest and frustration that some Trump supporters feel. But I think this is in no way a full picture of what lead to that outcome on Election Day.
I think it brought to light ideas about the things people need to take responsibility for, versus things that may require some government assistance. Do I agree with all of his suggestions? No. I think Vance doesn't want to actually recommend any policy and so he tip toes around it all quickly towards the end of the book. This is probably for the best as I don't believe it's his area of expertise. So if you're looking for how the government can help the poor, white, working class in Appalachia, this book will leave you wanting more. But if you're looking for a memoir that is relevant to how we understand these various demographics not only from a political aspect, but from a cultural aspect, you are likely to appreciate this book.