During our vacation last week, I had the pleasure of reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. He was born in Jackson, Kentucky and grew up in both Middletown, Ohio and Jackson. He tells his story of being born into an dysfunctional, but typical, Appalachian family, and his journey which has led him, so far, to graduate from Yale Law School, to highlight the culture and problems of the white, working poor. The subtitle is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.
Vance makes the point very clearly that one of the major differences in America is not political (Left vs. Right), but rather Elite (the wealthy) vs. Non-Elite (working poor, but black as well as white). According to Vance, we live in two different worlds. He describes the culture of the white, working poor using his own extended family as a template of sorts.
Vance is convinced that neither political party has answers for the plight of this, often hidden, group. The compassion of the Left doesn’t end up helping anyone, and the exhortations of the Right to exercise personal responsibility fall on deaf ears. Why? The answer is the same one he gives when asked to explain his family: “It’s complicated.”
I read half of the book on the flight to Hawai’i, and the rest on the way back, which says more about Vance’s writing than my reading speed. Hillbilly Elegy kept my attention, in other words. I resonated with some parts of Vance’s memoir because they were similar to my own growing-up years.
Vance offers some solutions – none of them earth-shattering, but all necessary. The most important one, in my opinion, is that in order to succeed, you need a social network. You need a group of people around you (family, church, friends, schools, etc.) who can shepherd you through life. By and large, according to Vance, the white, working poor are on their own (which is a recipe for disaster).
I enjoyed the book. I was informed by it. I was challenged by it, too. I recommend it. If you’re thinking of reading it, you should be aware that it has a good bit of profanity in it.