Thursday, 19 October 2017

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

Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,  I call them neighbours, friends, and family.
J.D. Vance

Remember all the disbelief when Donald Trump was elected President and the media wondered how they had got their predictions so wrong?
Hillbilly Elegy was a book touted after the election as an enlightening read as to how blue collar America became disillusioned with the effects of globalisation.  The book in fact has no mention of Trump as it was written before the election, but does examine the culture of  disenfranchised, poor white people.
J. D. Vance's family came from the Appalachian Mountains, (and Scotland and Ireland before that) and like so many moved to cities and towns in the American 'rust belt' for work in steel mills, coal mines and other industries.
As the industries closed down or moved offshore families fell on hard times.
J.D was lucky to have loving and supportive grandparents Mawmaw and Pawpaw; who although having problems of their own were often a safe haven for J.D.  His mother struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and J.D had 12 'stepfathers' throughout his childhood.
J.D's great-grandparents were 13 and 17 when they married.
J.D. spent time as a marine after High School and served in Afghanistan; an experience which taught him discipline and how to be motivated.  J.D. was also the first in his family to attend college. He went on to graduate from Yale law school; obtain a good job and construct a happy marriage.

Hillbilly culture has some strong positives; intense family  and patriotic ties and loyalty, and it's own sense of justice, albeit outside of the law.  Such values run alongside suspicion of those different from themselves, especially those with success and money; those in authority and also the media.
Towards the end of the book are some interesting insights into why the hillbilly culture can encourage learned helplessness.  The author ably combines his lived experience with a questioning analysis and sometimes harsh judgements.

Reviewed by Katrina

Catalogue link:  Hillbilly Elegy

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