I’m not a big fan of nonfiction unless it is a topic about which I have a great interest. Life in the hills of Appalachia is a topic I find entirely compelling. It’s why I am such a fan of fiction – particularly mysteries – that take place in the area designated Appalachia.
Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir written by J.D. Vance, therefore captured my attention despite it being a memoir. I very often find memoirs self-serving and uninteresting. Hillbilly Elegy caught my attention from the get-go, and kept it throughout the book. Well, almost. Even the most interesting memoirs can get tedious when the author is talking about certain points in his or her life.
Mr. Vance is a former Marine who graduated from Yale Law School despite his difficult childhood. He uses the word hillbilly, a term with which I find myself somewhat uncomfortable, despite the fact that I occasionally use it to deprecate myself as part of my humor. I guess that’s why its serious use makes me squirm a bit. Still, he uses it to describe himself and his family.
Vance’s grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio when they were newly married. According to the author, a large number of Scotch/Irish Appalachians moved to the so-called Rust Belt following World War II in search of a better life where jobs were plentiful in the mining and manufacturing region. Unfortunately, the poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, and general dysfunction followed the immigrants. You can take the man (or woman) out of the violence but you can’t take……
The book is not really so much about so-called hillbillies as it is about white working class Americans and how our system has failed them. Vance was mostly parented by his grandmother and grandfather, who were not unblemished themselves, but at least were a constant in his life. His parents were unavailable to him. His mother, in particular, failed him because of ongoing drug addiction. Aunts, uncles, cousins all demonstrated violent behavior and depended on drugs and alcohol to get through their difficult days.
There has been much talk lately about the problem of drug abuse as well as how poorly working class Americans are faring, but Vance’s perspective is different from many as this was his real life, the background from which he came. Drug and alcohol abuse, and general violence, were part of his roots. He credits his grandparents for his success.
Vance’s talk about government’s failings might be anathema to some who believe government assistance is the best way to help fight poverty. But he makes so many good points that I found myself highlighting section after section of my book. And then, unfortunately, returning it to the library.
A very interesting read indeed.