Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance

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As often happens when I get around to reading a much-hyped book, I was disappointed by this best-selling memoir. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town whose once-robust steel industry attracted many folks from Kentucky. Now a Yale-educated lawyer, his childhood was one of poverty, violence, drugs, and chaos—which he says is common in what he calls his hillbilly culture.

While he acknowledges the effect of a failing economy, Vance also says these evils are embedded in his culture. This balanced look at what holds people in poverty–both society’s structural problems and personal failings–is why the book appeals to both liberals and conservatives. Vance is the first to deny that he “pulled himself up by his bootstraps”–the conservatives’ solution–and to assert that it won’t help to simply spend more money on programs (jobs, training, etc.)–the liberals’ solution.

The major claim admiring reviewers make for this book is that it is, as Jennifer Senior in The New York Times puts it, “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”

Yet Vance himself is careful to say in his introduction that he is writing about a specific “group of people I know—working-class whites with ties to Appalachia.” It’s dangerous to assign a singular character to all the members of a group, and there has been pushback against Vance’s characterisation of all hillbillies as violent, unwilling to work, patriotic and proud while succumbing to welfare dependency and/or drug addiction. As one commenter on Rod Dreher’s interview with Vance said:

I worked as an ER nurse for several years in a mountainous region of upstate NY with lots of white poor people. There was also a small (less than 5%) population of poor black people. I saw the same pathologies in both groups of people: alcoholism, joblessness, domestic violence, broken families, drug overdoses, etc. I also saw people busting their butts working 2-3 jobs, going to church, and doing their best in very difficult situations . . .

As she asserts, there are plenty of “working-class whites with ties to Appalachia” who don’t fit Vance’s stereotype. And like her, some reviewers noted that the problems Vance sees for whites are similar to those that have long been faced by poor people of color.

I was mostly interested in the relatively brief sections of analysis in Vance’s book. The rest of the book is his account of his childhood and becomes what one friend of mine calls “another woe-is-me story”. The physical and emotional abuse is tremendous and I certainly feel for the child, but the unrelenting focus on his own hardships turns the other people in his story into one-dimensional stereotypes. His sister is an angel who protects him. His mother, a violent drug addict, seems deranged. Although they can be violent as well, his grandparents are always fiercely loving toward him. There is no attempt to understand the nuances of these people or the forces acting on them. Of course, one expects a child to be self-centered and not understand much about others, but Vance is writing this as an adult looking back.

What Vance does do very well, though, is to open himself up. He shares his fears and failures and weaknesses, something that’s awfully hard to do, but necessary if you want a memoir to work.

While the superficiality of the characters and the “woe-is-me” preoccupation disappointed me, I was more disturbed by his double standard. He’s extremely critical of people who take welfare, but is himself grateful to go to college on taxpayers’ money and to law school on scholarship. It’s okay for him to take handouts but not for others.

He has bought the conservative fantasy that people on welfare and food stamps are living high on the hog. Having been on welfare, I find this laughable. Vance is certain that undeserving people on welfare are getting much more than he is, citing his jealous anger that people on welfare had cell phones while he didn’t. Apparently he is not aware of programs that provide cell phones to poor people. His anger would be better directed at his mother for taking drugs and cycling through boyfriends and husbands instead of providing for him and his sister. What welfare does do–in its meager and grudging way–is to provide a little stability for vulnerable families, something that would have benefited his family.

He also trots out the urban legend of seeing someone on food stamps buying a steak, a favorite story among conservatives many of whom claim to have seen this with their own eyes or know someone who has. If it really did happen—and as someone who was on food stamps for several years, I find it extremely unlikely—and if he took a moment to think about it, he would realise that with less than $23 for an entire week’s worth of food, anyone buying a steak is going to be starving the rest of the week.

I do agree with him about the mix of structural obstacles (e.g., failing economy, shortage of good jobs) and the lack of what he calls individual agency. I call it personal responsibility. However, his path is not a solution for every child suffering in poverty, as another commenter on the interview quoted from above says:

Whether the kids are black, Hispanic, white, or Asian, the same dictum applies: if your solution to get the next generation out of poverty is be extremely smart, work incredibly hard at school, ignore temptations to stop working hard at school, and to take on thousands in debt or owe years to the military in order to get a 4 year degree, then you have no solution. Solutions can’t require extraordinary people. They have to work for ordinary people.

Vance is right to be proud of his accomplishments. And I agree with his recommendations for helping others to succeed. They are similar to those I made in my own memoir of poverty: instead of segregating the poor in ghettos, give them the opportunity to mingle with all levels including the middle class; make sure there are mentors who will help them envision a different future, believe it is possible, and then achieve it. He adds that the definition of family alternatives to foster care should be expanded to include grandparents and aunts and uncles.

I love that Vance credits those who helped him on his way: his grandparents, the Marine Corps, his sister, his aunt and uncle, teachers, and friends. As he says, “There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance.”

The beauty of memoir is that it enables us to see the world through someone else’s eyes. Many people have found this memoir a valuable look at what is to them an unfamiliar culture. It’s always a bit dangerous to assume that your experience can exemplify an entire culture. Nevertheless, this book adds to the discussion of poverty in the United States.

What memoirs have introduced you to another way of life?

Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

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Another Middle Grade coming-of-age story told in verse—pure coincidence that this was next up on my TBR (to be read) pile when I stopped to read Brown Girl Dreaming. Hesse’s story is also a Newbery winner but is fiction rather than memoir. Thirteen-year-old Billie Jo loves playing the piano when she isn’t busy helping her father and pregnant mother try to keep body and soul together in Dust Bowl Oklahoma.

She is good enough to be asked to play in shows, often with handsome Mad Dog. If she gets well enough known with her music, she can leave the failing farm and the ubiquitous dust behind and go to California. Then a terrible accident throws all her plans into disarray.

Spanning a two-year period from January 1934 to December 1935, these poems paint a vivid picture of what life was like during that terrible time. She describes having to turn the glasses and plates upside down on the table until the last second before serving the meal, and still the food is saturated with dust. There is the heartbreak of a field of wheat, already decimated by drought and wind, be flattened by hail or devoured by grasshoppers.

In some aspects, Billie Jo’s life is similar to many teens: wanting more independence than her mother is willing to give her, feeling as though she’s stuck in the middle of nowhere. When her teacher is in a production of Madame Butterfly, and Mad Dog says that “most everyone’s” heard of that opera, Billie Jo is miffed.

How does that
singing plowboy know something I don’t?
And how much more is out there
most everyone else has heard of
except me?

And she has a best friend. But when Livie leaves for California with her family, Billie Jo says, “I couldn’t get the muscles in my throat relaxed enough / to tell her how much I’d miss her.”

Poetry works well as a form for this novel. The fractured narrative adds to the feeling that you are reading a diary. Also, the necessary compression distills each scene into its essence while retaining the emotional impact. Hesse makes effective use of symbols as well, such as the mother’s special cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving. Here is one complete poem, called “Broken Promise”:

It rained
a little
everywhere
but here.

Other poems are longer and tell a more complete narrative, such as “Blankets of Black” about going to Texhoma for Grandma Lucas’s funeral. Billie Jo’s detailed description of the ordeal is riveting.

While written for ages 11-14, Billie Jo’s story will certainly appeal to adults as well. For younger readers, it’s a good introduction to the terrible tragedy of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Depression.

Have you read a Young Adult or Middle Grade novel that brought an historical period to life for you?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

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Woodson’s memoir in verse invites the reader into her childhood. Reading these poems felt as though Woodson and I were leafing through a photograph album while she told me about these people and places.

Her family’s story, like so many of ours, is a fractured one, with lots of moving around and relationships that fall apart due to death and divorce. Being people of color during the 1960s and 1970s adds further complications. Still, there is a strong current of love and security holding the family and their story together.

In “home” she writes of being taken as a newborn to meet her grandparents in South Carolina. She describes the porch, the azaleas, the red dust on her mother’s shoes. Then:

Welcome home, my grandparents say
    Their warm brown
arms around us. A white handkerchief,
    embroidered with blue
to wipe away my mother’s tears.
    And me,
the new baby, set deep
inside this love.

This book has won several awards, including the Newbery Honor, and was chosen as the 2017 book for Vermont Reads. While it falls in the children’s book category, it appeals to adults as well.

The title tells you all you need to know about the book to entice you into reading it. While being a perfectly straight-forward description of what the book is about, the title also gives you an idea of how the story will be told. The reversed syntax is intriguing, and the startling use of “brown” let’s you know that we are going to sidestep stereotypes about race and speak plainly .

Here’s the opening of “rivers”:

The Hocking River moves like a flowing arm away
from the Ohio River
runs through towns as though
it’s chasing its own freedom, the same way
the Ohio runs north from Virginia until
it’s safely away
from the South.

Most of all, the compression and music of these three words place you in the realm of poetry. It’s had to resist hearing the echo of the opening of Langston Hughes’s great poem “Dream Deferred”:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?

As I’ve mentioned before poetry works well for memoir because of its fragmentary nature. Gathering poems together in a collection such as this doesn’t create the same sort of linear narrative as a prose memoir.

For me, finding that narrative was the hardest part of writing my memoir. Life does follow a neat narrative arc. When we’re in the midst of it, our life seems chaotic and subject to chance; it’s only later that we try to impose some sort of coherent story out of it. Thus, capturing the past in individual poems And it actually reflects how memory works: it throws up a scene seemingly at random, and we are left to make sense of it.

Then the challenge for the poet is to find a way to make these fragments of memory, these separate scenes hang together without the usual transition tools. Woodson accomplishes this with deceptive ease. Arranged chronologically, the poems sometimes also reach back to tell stories of her parents and siblings and other family members.

This is a book that all ages will enjoy. One of the great benefits of reading is the opportunity to step into another person’s life and see the world through their eyes. I’m grateful to Woodson for her gift of her story, much of which reminded me of my own childhood and even more that helped me understand another kind of experience.

Does your state choose a book each year for everyone to read and discuss? If so, which book was chosen this year?