Hillbilly Elegy A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

This book by J.D. Vance, born a hillbilly in Kentucky who graduated fromYale Law school is loaded with rave reviews on both sides of the pond. Claims have been made that it provides an insight into Trump and Brexit.

It’s a short, but intriguing read, with the feel of a man chatting to you, so I was drawn into and along with his story. He grew up with a mother who had lots of problems – drink, drugs and unable to hold down work or relationships, but JD was saved by the love and care of his grandmother, an outspoken, sometimes violent hillbilly. It’s a grim read at times, of relatives out of control, and of his struggle to survive at school, his poor attendance and low grades, but he managed to pull himself through to graduation, but felt he lacked the life skills of an adult, so this pudgy teenager entered the marines and saw duty in Iraq, emerging to graduate from Yale law school, form a happy marriage and successful career.

Interspersed with his life story are comments on the problems of the hillbillies, of how so many have become dependent on welfare whilst praising independence and hard work, how they do not see the contradiction, how low are their expectations, and how many of them become trapped, like his mother, in a cycle of drink, drugs, violence and early deaths. He talks of how his grandfather was a lifelong democrat, but when he saw his society failing, rejected them for the Republicans. He talks of how unpopular Obama was, not for his race, but because he had all the trappings of wealth – a good education, well spoken and intelligent and worldly, living in a big city; they saw no connection with him, which made it easy to believe all the lies about his foreign birth, his faith etc. He writes:

This was my world: a world of truly irrational behaviour. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes and thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy, often leaving them full of garbage in our wake. Thrift is inimical to our being. We spend to pretend that we’re upper-class. and when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family bails us out of our stupidity – there’s nothing left over. Nothing for the kids’ college tuition no investment to grow our wealth, no rainy-day fund if someone loses their job. Sometimes we beat ourselves up over it, but we do it anyway. …

We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools – like peace and quiet at home – to succeed.

Note he uses the pronoun ‘we’ not ‘them’. These are his people, not a research project. I find the last sentence particularly worrying. We all need peace sometimes.

Vance repeatedly mentions how the hillbillies worked in mines, then when they closed, they moved to towns like his, Middletown – the name says it all – to work in factories, but then they failed, and his community failed to recover. His peers had no aspirations, the few who went to college stayed local. He spoke to teachers and social workers of the many families who were trapped in this cycle of hopelessness, drink, drugs, violence, and suggested that throwing money into welfare just wasn’t helping. These people need to learn how to help themselves.

He also debunks one of the characteristics of the south, the so-called Bible Belt. He claims few people attend church; his birth father stood out as he became an evangelical, raised his new family on a farm, and seemed to have a happy, if conservative, life. 

A bit of history might be of use here – he talks of hillbillies being mostly Scots/Irish. They were people thrown off their land by the Highland clearances, by poverty in Ireland. They had no future in Britain, so many became indentured servants, purchased by ships captains, and forced to pay their passage by being slaves for usually 7 years, at the end of which they were promised land and tools to survive for a year. But by the time they were free there was no good land left, settlements moved west and they were stranded, little better than they had been in the old country. So they have a long history of betrayal by those in power, yet in the 1930s they still had a strong folk culture and community, maybe better than their black neighbours, yet it seems they have fallen behind. Vance makes no mention of this, and it intrigues me.

This book worried me on several levels. Yes, it’s intriguing and heartfelt, and Vance’s rise from such a difficult childhood is heartwarming and inspiring, but there is  a lot more going on here.

My image of hillbillies is their music – the Carter family, the dawn of popular music. Music seems to play no part in his life beyond a bit of heavy metal as a teenager. Most teenagers grow up listening to pop music; they sing songs together, they go to concerts, they learn some of their life skills through lyrics. He makes no mention of this. Or of any hobbies or pasttimes, of art in any form.     

The Carolina Chocolate drops talk of Appalachian music in the early 20th century being similar between the black and white communities. Singing together in church helped bind them together, and provided the bedrock of what has become popular music, and helped form communities which bonded to form the civil rights movement. Vance’s memoir talks constantly about his family, so his early socialising was in this inward looking group, not connecting with others to provide advice and support. His family feels like they were all drowning; there was nobody outside to throw them a life preserver.

Vance talks of his family constantly, and how much he loves them, which is great, but he missed so much. He held down several jobs whilst at college and university, so despite his talk of the importance of networking, his practice of it seems to have been limited. University is seen by many as the most important time of peoples’ lives, when they can delay becoming adults, where lives can be lived with training wheels. You can join clubs, experiment with politics, drama, sports, and bond with a range of people you never knew existed. Vance missed all this.

Maybe I’m being too critical, because this is an important book. But it lacks colour, depth, fire in the belly stuff. Vance seems to be a nice, intelligent man, but he talks of love and passion; he doesn’t show it.

As for the parallels between Trump and Brexit, claimed by one review, well, these are limited. Our counties and the problems they face are very different, we suffer more from weak rather than bad leadership and there are a lot of organisations being mobilised to fix things. 

Quibbles aside, this is a fascinating read.

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