Publisher and Publication Date: Harper Paperbacks. May 1, 2018.
Genre: Nonfiction. Memoir.
Rating: Very Good.
J.D. Vance has written a memoir of his life as a 2nd generation removed from eastern Kentucky. He and his parents were born and raised in Ohio. His grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio post World War II in hopes of having a better life. The new life was made in the steel town of Middletown, Ohio. They brought with them the same culture and standards of the Appalachian people. It was Vance’s grandparents who raised him, primarily his Mamaw. She was a rough talking woman, strong-willed and determined, but she was the support system for Vance. Vance later joined the Marines. He graduated from Yale Law School. His memoir has been written in hopes of shedding light on the people of Kentucky’s Appalachian region.
The Afterword chapter is a summation of Vance’s final thoughts which include political ideas and hopes.
When I read a story about a person who wants to shed light on a particular people group- I keep an open mind. The author is showing what he believes to be true. And, this is the story of the life he has lived.
I’ve lived in Texas all my life. I was born and raised in Houston. I grew up middle class. Dad had a great job at an oil company. We lived in the same house all my growing up years. Mother was a homemaker. We attended the same neighborhood church all my life. I’m the youngest of 5 children. The next sibling in age to me is 10 years older. From the little bit of information I’ve given you, you’ve probably placed me in a particular box with a label. You may or may not be correct. I wanted to state my short bio to prove a point against Vance’s more revealing bio. His life does not represent all people who have the same type of background of people group he came from. And, no person knows what really goes on in a house except the people who live there. People reveal what they want us to know, even those people who are our best buds.
Back to the book review.
What I liked about the book:
1. The introduction is one of the best I’ve read. It is transparent and humble. Vance is straight forward about his family and reason for writing the book.
2. Appalachian stories are a favorite for me. This is a people group who I have a personal interest in. The post Civil War years is when my ancestors left the Appalachian states and moved to Texas. Another reason is I love their independent, prideful nature.
3. I felt a strong investment from the first page in Vance’s life. His early life through to adulthood, I enjoyed reading about the progress of education, life experiences, and career. I enjoyed reading his perspective of family, including the family left behind in Kentucky.
4. He had a special relationship with his grandparents. Despite their rough exterior they loved their grandchildren. This was endearing to me.
5. The author makes valid teaching points. For example: “…social class in America isn’t just about money.” Page 63.
6. Some of the things he was taught, I was taught by my parents too. “I don’t know those people. You never talk about family to some stranger.” Page 41. When I was a child my dad often said, “Annette, don’t be telling people our business.” I wanted to remark, “what people and what business?” I kept my mouth shut out of fear of getting my ears boxed.
7. Vance gave brief explanations of Appalachian terms. For example: a hollow is a valley or basin.
8. In the end chapters, Vance has reached the point in life where he is trying to make peace with life. He does not want to blame anyone. He wants to have sympathy for them and process his past with wisdom.
What I did not like about the book:
1. I found more parallels in his Protestant hillbilly family and my Catholic 2nd generation Eastern European in-law’s. I make this statement, because his upbringing is not just a hillbilly thing. This type of lifestyle is in every social class, religion, and people group. I’ve known people who are educated with high paying careers who live in a violent abusive family or they are the abuser. And addictions like drugs and alcohol plague many families. I do believe education, especially higher education, helps people move beyond poverty and to independence. But education does not eradicate abusive homes and addictions. And further, sometimes people who make 6 figures cannot manage their money. They are still poor.
2. The Marines gave Vance a different perspective. He left that world he was living in and moved to a different atmosphere. He met different people. He had new life experiences. Vance didn’t show this experience in detail as I wanted him to.
3. The book has been earmarked as a political statement. I’ve read reviews on the book, and not all reviewers agree it made the big statement some believe it did. Readers read what they want to, and a big part of reading a book is what we bring to the table, our own life experiences and memories. Books are personal, and Hillbilly Elegy is a personal story. For me, I latched on to the family saga. The good and sad memories of Vance. His grandparents and parents.
I work as a tutor for elementary age children. I help them learn to read. The school is in a low income neighborhood. I have learned so much in working with these kids. The biggest thing I’ve learned is the transparency of the kids. They are brutally honest about their home lives. Most of them live in single parent homes. They live with their mothers. They have grandparents who are active in their lives.
Some examples of stories I hear:
“My mom won’t go to bed and turn off the television so I can sleep.”
“People are coming and going out of my house all day and night.”
“My mom was fighting with her boyfriend. She has a new friend now.”
“I’ve never heard of a library.”
“We left Alabama, because there were people trying to kill my brother.”
“I don’t have any socks.”
“I’m late to school everyday, because my mom oversleeps.”
“I vomited at school yesterday, but my mom wouldn’t come get me.”
“We don’t have a home.”
“My mom said she hates my dad and wishes he were dead.”
What is the answer?
These children are our future.