An elegy for a culture that’s killing itself

hillbilly.jpgI read J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” about a month ago, and still don’t know what to think about it.

Looking at it one way, the book is an engrossing first-hand story about the life of the rural poor—particularly those in Appalachia—and how one man got out, into the Marines, Ohio State University and into Yale Law School. Now, though Vance’s website says he’s a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm, he is better known as a talking head on cable news channels.

But “Elegy” is also a loving sepia-toned remembrance of a life that no one in America should be living and the people who live it.

Vance takes readers inside what used to be his life. It was, to say the least, unstable. His mother, addicted to several substances on and off over the years, went from man to man, sometimes moving to the man’s house with her children and sometimes moving the man into her house. Volatile and abusive, she only intermittently kept jobs and food on the table. Vance’s  father was not in the picture until later, when Vance sought him out, but that didn’t turn out as expected, either.

He was lucky in two ways, though. Against all odds, he had a close, loving relationship with a sister, the two of them supporting and caring for each other in ways their parents couldn’t. More important, he had grandparents who realized they had screwed up their own kids and looked at Vance and his sister as a second chance.

These grandparents—who lived apart, but were closely involved in each other’s lives—insisted on education and provided a stable atmosphere when their mother fell apart, time after time. Vance credits that stability—tenuous as it was—with helping him focus and realize that there is something beyond the life he and everyone he knew were living. They offered him hope in a culture that had long since stopped believing such a thing could exist. It was that hope that showed him a way out.

One issue I have with Vance is that he labels the people he writes about “the white working class” when a more honest label would be “the white working poor.”

I was raised by parents in “the white working class” who were raised by parents who were “white working class.” All my people—except for my father who eventually had his own business—were hourly employees. These were people who knew they could make extra money working overtime, which would help them save up for higher-ticket items which they purchased a dollar down and a dollar a week. They had two weeks of vacation a year and, if they went to the doctor, had to take unpaid time off work to do it. They clipped coupons, went without and treated themselves only occasionally. When they purchased something, they  treated it properly so it would last. That way they could spend money on the next thing they needed.

Not so Vance’s relatives, who worked, sure, but didn’t make enough to afford anything worth treating properly (or so it seems)—not even their homes where they raised kids who learned living like this was not just acceptable, but normal.

My bigger issue with “Hillbilly Elegy” is the subtitle. “A Memoir of Family and a Culture in Crisis.” If the hillbilly culture in crisis, it’s a crisis of its own making. Drugs, lack of family structure, violence, and a distrust of those not in the culture breed generations of people with nothing to dream about. This, Vance writes, is a culture that won’t raise itself up because it doesn’t see a reason or a way, but won’t accept government help. So where do you go from there? Vance doesn’t really say.

And if ideas can’t come from someone like him, where will they come from?



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