I read through the best-seller list in the WSJ every week. Mostly, I don’t recognize the books, sometimes I do know the authors, but it keeps me in tune with the top of the book market in which I work. Repeatedly, my eye was drawn to the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance which has remained on the non-fiction best sellers for months. I was attracted by the unique title, but most of all by the author who I erroneously assumed was J.A. Jance, best-selling author of many mysteries set in the states of Washington and Arizona--great recreational reading. I realized my cognitive error (old age) and looked up J.D. Vance—and ordered the book.
This is a memoir from childhood through early career of a boy born into a hillbilly family in Kentucky who migrates to Middletown, OH. They move from rural poverty to urban factory jobs, along with other Kentucky families. J.D. has a miserable childhood: 15 father figures who rotate in and out of his mother’s life, an unstable mother, and eventually, poverty. But he is blessed with a loving and level-headed older sister, a mentoring aunt and grandparents who, though thoroughly hillbilly (a culture that he defines through example), love, nurture and guide J.D.
It’s difficult for those of us who are middle-class white to empathize with poor whites. I saw a bit in the 1950’s Ozarks where my grandparents had a 600-acre rock farm. They were made poorer by the depression, but the rock farm was originally their hunting lodge, where they were now forced to live full-time. Compared to our neighbors, the O’Mally’s, the DeVeaux’s, the Hogan’s, we were royalty. And, since these neighbors owned farms, they were higher on the pecking order than most hillbillies in the book, and they were of a different generation. When U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood opened 20 miles away, many flocked to the steady government jobs and likely upward mobility.
The kernel of J.D.’s memoir is that lower class whites feel they have been abandoned by both Democrat and Republican politicians and governments. Traditionally Democrats, lower class whites feel abandoned by elite liberals from the East, much like they have been ignored by traditional Republicans who focus on the role of profitable business to float all boats. And along comes Trump, who usurped the Republican party and paid attention to lower and middle-class whites and their plight of closed factories and disappearing jobs. Combine that with distrust of print media and willingness to believe conspiracy theories about Obama, Clinton, health care, voting so enough changed parties to elect a man who really has no substantial understanding of the lower classes, black or white.
The refreshing point of this memoir is that J.D. does not point fingers at the local, state or national government or the politicians for his childhood problems. In true conservative style, he proves through his life that we all contain within us the ability to “move up”, make reality of our dreams. He acknowledges the critical roles played by the mentors in his family, his universities, the Marines, his religion and his wife. Conversely, he feels there is much more that can be done by government and middle and upper class individuals to focus on the core problems of poverty: single mothers, a flood of cheap and available narcotics, underperforming schools, and the loss of religion.
I can’t say I enjoyed this book – most of it is too bleak to be enjoyable. It is well written; it’s a quick read; it isn’t didactic, and it makes you think. If you are interested in one man’s insight into why the U.S. is foundering, you should read it.
I recommend that after you finish the book, you read this interview of J.D. Vance with Rod Dreher of “The American Conservative”. It drills a bit further into Vance’s point of view.
And if you want some good reading for a mental holiday enjoy any of J.A. Jance’s books.