Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance. New York: Harper, 2016.
Summary: A memoir of growing up in a troubled family from the hill country of Kentucky in Middletown, Ohio, exploring why so many in the working class are struggling, and what made the difference for the author.
This book caught my attention for a number of reasons. J.D. Vance is an Ohio author. He is a graduate of The Ohio State University, as is my son who is the same age as the author. And a number of reviewers have said this book explains the appeal of Donald Trump. I was interested for another reason. As those who follow my “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” posts know, I grew up in a working class, rust belt town as well. On the opening page, he writes, “You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” That sentence could have been written about my home town.
At the same time, Vance comes from a distinctive sub-culture, the Scots-Irish hillbilly culture of eastern Kentucky, as opposed to the eastern and southern European roots of many of the people in Youngstown, although we had our share of hillbillies who had made their way north to work in the mills. Vance takes much of the first part of this book to describe his family roots–the scrappy, fiercely independent and fiercely loyal to family character of these people who would take a chain saw to someone who insulted their mother, sacrifice to no end for children and grandchildren, and fight like cats and dogs with each other. We learn of his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, estranged from each other, but who turn a corner when they see how their fighting destroyed their daughter, Vance’s mother, who struggled with alcohol and opiate addiction, lived with a series of men, creating an increasingly unstable home environment for Vance. He describes himself at the edge of the abyss, with declining grades and beginning to abuse substances. He recounts his mother’s episodes of violence, and then the utterly heartfelt apologies, with nothing changing.
The turning point came when his mother came to him to provide her with a urine sample so she could keep her job. He writes:
“I exploded. I told Mom that if she wanted clean piss, she should stop f***ing up her life and get it from her own bladder. I told Mamaw that enabling Mom made it worse and that if she had put her foot down thirty years earlier, then maybe Mom wouldn’t be begging her son for clean piss.”
From then on, he lived with Mamaw, and describes how life improved. She insisted he study hard and in her own rough way insisted he contribute to the household, do his chores, all, with the hope that he would have a better life. After graduation, he realized that he still didn’t know entirely how to do that, and deferred college to serve in the Marines. Not only did they teach him what he was capable of physically, pushing him harder than he’d ever been pushed; they taught him life skills like balancing a checkbook and handling money. He learned to stop listening to the voices that said, “you aren’t good enough”, the pervasive hopelessness of the working class culture he’d come from. He ended up handling media relations for his base, and receiving a commendation.
He used veterans benefits to go to Ohio State, finished in two years, and gained admittance to Yale Law School. For the first time, he came to understand the importance of social capital. After his first “interview week” he observes:
“That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with résumés, hoping that some employer will grace them with an interview. They network. They email a friend of a friend to make sure their name gets the look it deserves. They have their uncles call old college buddies. They have their school’s career service office set up interviews months in advance on their behalf. They have parents tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze.”
A law professor provides him with some of her social capital, and something more, advice at a crucial point putting the focus on a budding relationship rather than a clerkship that really didn’t matter to his ambitions.
The conclusion of the book faces the stark realities of coming back to Middletown, now bereft of its steel plant, its people struggling with not only making it in lower income jobs, but opiate addiction, families in turmoil and more. These are the “left behind” working class to whom Trump appeals. Yet one gets the sense in reading Vance that he doesn’t think Trump, or any politician, can solve their problems, because the unstable lives they’ve chosen, or in the case of children, been thrust into, won’t enable and equip them to keep any jobs that may be gained. It is a crisis of spirit and hope. Vance thinks ultimately that this is a culture which needs to find its own answers, needs to come up with its own Mamaws and Papaws, and culture-renewing institutions. In contrast to other-worldly, insular fundamentalist churches and dysfunctional families, he asks:
“Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it? Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?”
Vance’s book actually gives us hope. Truth was, he didn’t need a lot of social capital to make the difference. A tough old grandmother who provided stability and structure and expectations that he could make something of himself was enough, at least to get him on the right course. That may seem over-simplistic. And it won’t help everyone. It didn’t help Vance’s mother. But it makes the point that the critical capital in any community is not the capital poured in by public and private means, but the capital of the people who live there, and whether they have the spiritual resources of hope to believe their own choices matter.
Politicians peddle panaceas. I’ve watched them do it in my home town. But the people who have made a difference and created bright spots don’t look to politicians but to God, themselves, and each other, and then put their backs to the hard work of providing role models for kids, and to rebuilding, a neighborhood and a business at a time. I appreciate Vance for naming the illusions to which politicians pander, the realities that defy political solutions, and what made the difference for him–the tough old grandma, the drill sergeant, the law professor, who took the time to provide structure, and counsel, and affirmation. Could it be that it is just that simple, and just that hard?