When two opposites meet in the crossroads of empathy…
About the book
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance
From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.
Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
Ok ok ok please bear with me as I try to explain how much I liked this book. I think the best way would be to described the scene playing in my mind at the end of the book. Picture this…
A conservative hillbilly [his words not mine] holding hands with this immigrant book reviewer leaving a poetic trace of footprints at the beach. The camera slowly zooms out to show one of those BIG hearts lovers trace at the beach. Inside it reads. “One Nation…” The evocative song fades and the super bowl Coca-Cola commercial stars.
Hope you are starting to feel me. Fell where I’m going with this 🙂
So first let me say that I read fiction to get a break from real life. So I’m not a big fan of nonfiction. I don’t even watch the news. I usually let B-Dad watch the news and give me a VERY brief summary and analysis.
So why did I read this book?
Well because I wanted to understand what happened with the US elections.
So when this book started popping nonstop at the top of in my public library Nonfiction Best Sellers newsletter, I couldn’t help but notice the first praise…
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER, NAMED BY THE TIMES AS ONE OF “6 BOOKS TO HELP UNDERSTAND TRUMP’S WIN”
I requested it. I couldn’t wait to read it! But I HAD TO WAIT because there was HUGE waiting list.
And when I finally got it, I could see why. This book was unputdownable!
Even though I’m like the opposite of J.D. and his people in every possible way… racially, culturally, socially, politically, economically, geographically… I fell irremediably in love with this memoir!!!
And I … oh lord…. I experienced SO MUCH EMPATHY!
“I stood in the narrow walkway that separated the living room from the dining room and asked Mamaw a question that had been on my mind since she ordered Mom to drive us home safely. I knew what she’d say, but I fuess I just wanted reassurance. ‘Mamaw does God loves us?’ She hung her head, gave me a hug, and began to cry”
OUCH! Let me collect the pieces of my heart.
Still… for the first third of the book I remained skeptical and even kinda bored.
Even though it was a touching, well written story about the American Dream, I couldn’t find anything unique about it. There was nothing different from all other American dreams. Not even from other immigrants dreams around the world and throughout history.
It was the same tale of that one individual that breaks out the poverty cycle, migrates to where there are more opportunities, never fully assimilating, always feeling like an outsider, but proud of having made it better than their parents, and hopeful that their children and grandchildren will do better than him.
The same tale of a subculture feeling of isolation. The “It’s us against the rest of the world ” and “our problems are so ours no one else can understand them”.
The same set of circumstances that you find everywhere with the same outcomes.
I’ve heard Irish, Italians, Portuguese, Germans, Mexicans, you name it, say what J.D. relatives and friends said:
“We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart”
All immigrants learn the same lesson: Newcomers are often mistrusted, not welcome. And they become suspicious of everyone else in return. In J.D. own words…
“The stigma came from both directions: Many of their new neighbors viewed them suspiciously. To the established middle class of white Ohionans, these hillbillies simply didn’t belong. They had too many children, and they welcome their extended families into their homes for too long”
Just replace “Ohioans” for let’s say “New Yorkers” and “hillbillies” for “Irish” immigrants in 1860s, or “for Italians” in the 1940s or “Californians” and “Mexicans” in the new millennium and the statement will still apply.
I guess I was hoping for something different that would explain why HERE, why NOW. Why people this book is the answer for THESE elections. Because the few times I read memoirs, I hope to learn how to see the world from other perspectives.
Then I thought… Maybe there is nothing different to find here. Maybe the experience I was supposed to have with this book was about the similarities.
And maybe that’s why I found it so heartwarming.
The two last thirds of the book get a lot more personal, and I was charmed to the core. And that’s when the road to empathy started.
I enjoyed J.D. personal story of upward mobility and how he overcame all the obstacles of his upbringing to become a Yale Law School Graduate. I really admired how eloquently and elegantly he tells his story, even though it clearly carries a such an emotional weight for him.
There were gasping moments but I couldn’t bring myself to feel as polarized as I would have under other circumstances.
“My new faith put me in the lookout for heretics. Good friends who interpret parts of the bible differently were bad influences”
“Evolution and the Big Bang became Ideologies to confront, not theories to understand”
Such statements, in another context, would have gotten the same dismissive reaction they usually get from me. But when I read them in the context of J.D.’s story, I understood how important was for him as a little boy to connect with his father and his roots.
I worshiped my dad when I was little. I became an engineer just because one day he happened to mention very casually that would be great if I were an engineer. That was how powerful his influence was. I believed in evolution, the big bang and an ever expanding universe and black holes not because of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, which I reread a millionth times. I BELIEVED because, my father, my hero, believed it. I believed in science because of the countless stargazing hours spent with my father discussing science. For me, Carl Sagan was just another smart guy that happened to agree with my all-mighty dad. 🙂
And I was irremediably in love when J.D. acknowledged than even a disadvantaged impoverish hillbilly in the US had it a thousand times better than millions other people in other countries.
THANK YOU J.D. THANK YOU. THANK YOU. THANK YOU.
Another thing this book did was making me fall in love even more with the Marines Corps, which I didn’t think was possible.
To summarize, I loved the compassion J.D. showed when acknowledging all the hardships and misfortunes his people had to suffer but I loved even more when he placed the ultimate accountability and responsibility where it belonged: with each individual and not with external forces. Social inequality, unfair government policies are not exclusive of their group and are definitely not something that will irremediably shapes their destiny. They are obstacles to overcome like any other subgroup or culture. He is proof that those obstacles can be overcome!
And so J.D. and I march together towards a new horizon of empathy
I think not only every person living in the US should read this book but any individual struggling to understand the forces that impact their upward mobility or their chances to improve their quality of life.
Thank you for visiting!