I didn’t write this book because I've accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I've achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn't happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future—that if they're lucky, they'll manage to avoid welfare; and if they're unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year."
I had high expectations from this highly-praised 2016 bestseller. It would explain the mentality of poor and lower working class whites, of Fox News viewers, of Trump voters. Or so I thought.
Decades ago, coal jobs were dying in Appalachia. The factories in Ohio were hiring. J.D. Vance grew up in a working class family in Middletown, Ohio, in an extended family that had migrated from eastern Kentucky in hopes of a better life. But as the factories closed, just as the mines before them did, the region became the Rust Belt, and the "hillbilly values" that came with the migrating families and spread through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana, didn't serve them well. According to Vance, "Hillbilly culture at the time (and maybe now) blended a robust sense of honor, devotion to family, and bizarre sexism into a sometimes explosive mix."
Vance says a simple question like how many brothers and sisters did he have would stop him cold. He of course counted the half-sister he always lived with, but what about his step-sisters and step-brothers from his mother's five marriages? Did he still count them after his mother's divorces when he no longer lived with them? Vance learned not to grow attached to the men in his mother's life because he knew they wouldn't be around for long. His mother had a drug and alcohol addiction. Vance eventually spent more time living with his grandmother, the woman he credits the most with preventing his own life perpetuating the cycle of failure he saw all around them.
Unemployed husbands would abuse their wives, mothers would abuse their children, both would abuse alcohol or drugs, but everyone in the extended family would close ranks to defend the family against social workers who would try in vain to help. The lucky ones escaped. Vance eventually graduated from high school, joined the Marines (which he credits with teaching him discipline and responsibility), attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School.
Vance says, "There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day." But Vance himself avoids the easy tendency to blame others for the region's troubles. Describing one man Vance says, "His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions." Vance does not look to conservatives for help. "Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers...The message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault."
What's disheartening is that Vance has no solutions. "People sometimes ask whether I think there’s anything we can do to 'solve' the problems of my community. I know what they’re looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture aren’t like a Rubik’s Cube, and I don’t think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist."
So, by all means, read J.D. Vance's memoir to better understand the Rust Belt and the "hillbilly" culture that makes up part of it. But be warned: a lot of the stereotypes about "hillbillies" are true in Vance's telling. Also be warned: Vance doesn't offer solutions, easy or otherwise. And so, in the end, I was more discouraged by the book than anything else.
"Hillbilly Elegy" is available in Kindle format from the Richardson public library.