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2016-11-27 Steve Gardiner Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Although J.D. Vance did not write his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis as an analysis of why Donald Trump won the election, many critics are now hailing his book for exactly that reason.

Vance says early in the book that he wrote it because “I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently; that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”


Vance gives an account of his family moving from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, bringing their Appalachian lifestyle and values with them. He explains the sense of honor and loyalty that led to him getting his first bloody nose at age five after someone insulted his mother. He also portrays the violence and verbal abuse that were a part of his growing up.


The book is filled with memorable characters including Mamaw amd Papaw, his grandparents who raised him when his mother's life turned out to be too unstable. Her time in rehab and the long string of boyfriends and husbands that paraded through the house left J.D. with a unique view of life and the adult world.


After high school, J.D. spent four years in the Marines where he learned a lot about discipline before he went on to overcome steep odds to graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. In spite of the many challenges he faced, he came out of the world of poverty and ended up a success. Much of his book is his attempt to discover why.


He wrote, “The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities. My elementary and middle schools were entirely adequate, staffed with teachers who did everything they could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the bottom of Ohio's schools, but that had little to do with the staff and much to do with the students. I had Pell Grants and government-subsidized low-interest student loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me. These programs are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government's control.”


If the solution to the problem is not the government, then what is it. Vance wrote that “any successful policy program would recognize what my old high school's teachers see every day; that the real problem for so many of these kids is what happens (or doesn't happen) at home.”


His analysis of what has happened to the white working class in America over the past several decades is food for thought about what happened in the recent election. The fears and frustrations of a large group of voters were expressed in the results on November 8.



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