This review contains SPOILERS:
J.D. Vance is the 3rd generation out of Appalachia. His grandparents left the holler of Jackson, Kentucky when they were teenagers, escaping the poverty and despair that surrounded them AND running away because J.D.’s then 14-year-old Mamaw was pregnant. The settled in Middletown, Ohio and J.D.’s Papaw got a job at a steel mill.
Papaw was a drinker and Mamaw was a spitfire. The two made for some interesting times! At one point before J.D. was born, Mamaw tells Papaw not to come home drunk or she’ll kill him. Always being a woman of her word, when he comes home drunk and passes out, she proceeds to pour gasoline over him and set him ablaze! Fortunately, he was not seriously injured (a miracle in itself) and, later, Papaw quits drinking, cold turkey.
Papaw and Mamaw were a huge influence on J.D. As the son of their youngest daughter, J.D. lives in a very difficult world. His mom is an addict who starts with pain pills and ends up using heroin. J.D. watched her get arrested more than once. His mom also is a serial monogamist….she has to have a boyfriend/husband. When one relationship ends, another begins immediately. She was married at least five times and lived with many men in addition. She dragged J.D. and his older sister (half-sister from a previous relationship) with her to live with these men. J.D.’s biological father surrenders him for adoption to J.D.’s second husband, who then leaves and doesn’t want J.D.
Surrounding the story of J.D.’s tumultuous life is a commentary on the plight of the white, poor, working-class and their social environment. Middletown sounds a LOT like the city I live in (it is less than 2 hours away). They are both rust belt towns that have seen the manufacturing that once kept the city alive disappear. With that disappearance came a lack of high-quality work for the citizens. Those who were smart opted for something referred to as “brain drain”…the well-educated, well-trained, or well-connected citizens went elsewhere to work — and never came back. The people left behind were truly disadvantaged, having no good job prospects and little social support (most had left rural communities where families were connected albeit generally dysfunctional). This dearth of opportunity created a sense of hopelessness and despair which resulted in increasing rates of substance abuse. In turn, the schools lost their best teachers and parents, with little education themselves, and less interest in their children’s education, resulted in decreasing rates of high school graduation, more drug abuse, more single parents, and (for some) jail time as a result of never having been given a moral compass.
J.D. recounts a story of a young man who quits his job because he doesn’t like getting up early and then, on Facebook, bemoans Obama’s policies as the cause of his joblessness. J.D. states that the thing he’d most like to change about the white working-class is “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” He also says, “somehow your mind confuse(s) lack of effort for inability.” J.D. Vance had several things in his favor. One was his Mamaw. She is quoted as saying, “You can do anything; don’t be like those fu&*ers who think the deck is stacked against them.” She pushed him and believed in him. Another thing was the fact that his grandparents provided the stability that he needed to study and concentrate on his school work. Then there was the US Marine Corps. Vance enlisted and he says that the 4 years he spent in the Corps taught him many things that aren’t taught to the typical young person in Middletown: balancing a checkbook, getting up early, and “giving it your all.”
This isn’t to say that all lower-middle-class working whites have problems with drugs, alcohol abuse, violence, laziness, discouragement, or lack-of-motivation. That isn’t the case, and Vance doesn’t make that argument at all. He does, however, latch on to a pattern that I see around me every day (especially at ‘the Walmart’) where people dress and behave in ways that ought not to be seen in civil society. They aren’t bad people. They’re just living the generational life they’ve been raised to live.
I wasn’t raised in a rust belt town, but rather a large metropolitan city in Texas, yet, I see some of the traits Vance mentions in my own family. I am the adult child of a violent alcoholic who abused my mother. I’ve seen my father too drunk to get out of his car, or so drunk that he managed to get out of his car but came inside and fell over when I went to kiss him and passed out there on the floor where he fell. I have extended family with substance abuse or psychiatric issues. An aunt (by marriage) was incarcerated.
These issues aren’t unique to the white working-class, but they are more common for them than they are for upper-class families. The question J. D. Vance proposes — but does not answer — is how do we fix it?
Sadly, the answer for many of the working poor in 2016 (when this book was published) was a vote for Donald Trump. He was going to fix it all. Unfortunately, he’s not fixed much for the working-class. His tax program, while front-loaded to help the middle-class, take those advantages away quickly, and replaces them with tax policy that will hurt the middle-class (and help the top 10%). I see no more hopefulness in the people of my rust belt town now than I did in 2015.
Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating book. The portion of the book that is strict ‘memoir’ is fabulous. The memoir is sandwiched between (and sprinkled with) scholarly commentary from sociologists psychologists, political scientists, and economists. I think the book would have been better split into two books…one the memoir, and the other a commentary on the plight of the working poor.
I recommend Hillbilly Elegy. It is interesting and thought-provoking.