November 29, 2016
The hillbilly or redneck culture of poor whites in Appalachia is largely hidden from view or intentionally ignored by much of the rest of the country, as the recent election showed. In Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, who himself grew up in this culture, offers a warm yet starkly honest view of himself, his extended family and his people.
Vance loves the folks he grew up with in Kentucky and Ohio, and that shows. At the same time he gives a frank picture of them, their excesses and their despair. He also unpacks some of the vast economic and social forces that have brought low this sector of the U.S., including many of his friends and family. Yet he does not excuse them as hapless victims.
He tells the story of a warehouse coworker who took three or four "breaks" each day as much as an hour long and who was eventually fired for it. The man blamed his boss. "How could you do this to me? Don't you know I have a pregnant girl friend?" The story, Vance says, is not untypical. "There is a lack of agency here--a feeling you have little control over you life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself" (pp. 6-7). He goes on:
To many analysts, terms like "welfare queen" conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole. Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens, some were my neighbors, and all were white. (p. 8)
And that's why many of his friends oppose welfare. They see how it is used and abused by their neighbors who should be and could be working instead of drinking and drugging themselves to death while scamming the system.
Vance was obviously able, unlike most of his peers, to follow a different path with the stabilizing influence of his grandparents, a stint in the Marines, going to Ohio State University and then Yale Law School. Even these episodes are revealing of hillbilly culture because they expose what he never learned by being raised redneck--when to go to a doctor, how to balance a checkbook, how to get an auto loan, that some cities have better job prospects than others, how to get a job by networking.
The author doesn't offer much by way of solutions for the vast problems that have waylaid this part of the U.S. But he does offer compassion. And that is valuable indeed.