Book Review: HILLBILLY ELEGY by J. D. Vance

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“A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”

By Keith Dahlberg,

Contributor to the News-Press

J. D. Vance’s book tells two simultaneous stories.

One is the migration of working whites from the factories and mines of the “Rust Belt” – roughly the Appalachian mountain region – to the cities and villages of the Ohio River valley, seeking jobs.

The other is about his family, trying to survive with little education but with a system of honor stretching back to the feuds of the Kentucky Hatfield and McCoy clans.

His grandfather at age 17 married his grandma, age 13, in Jackson, Kentucky in 1947.

Low pay in the coal mines was the only option around Jackson, so Papaw and Mamaw joined the post-war flow of people out of Appalachia to Ohio.

They settled in Middleton, where Armco Corporation was recruiting workers for its steel mills.

J.D.’s Uncle Jimmy was born there, and ten years later, after eight miscarriages, Mamaw gave birth to J.D.’s mother Bev in 1961, and his aunt Lori in 1962. Just three kids.

But the grandparents’ marriage grew more and more violent, despite their being financially better off than those who stayed in Kentucky.

Perhaps it was Papaw’s heavy drinking, perhaps Mamaw’s gradual withdrawal from the world around her.

Perhaps it was a “code of the hills,” with sincere love for their own children and grandchildren, but their insistence that no one outside the family must ever know about the violence within it.

The grandparents wanted their children to have better education and a better future, but misread the effect that their own violent fighting caused.

Yet J.D. sees his Mamaw and Papaw as the greatest people he knew in his youth.

Neither had ever set foot in high school, yet Papaw would explain multiplication and division; Mamaw would see that J.D. got a library card and books to read.

Both encouraged him daily.

His Mom was the smartest person he knew, salutatorian in her high school class, yet she had a growing drug habit, and seven marriages.

Her temper could rise from zero to murderous in a heartbeat, and often made J.D. and his sister Lindsay take shelter with their grandparents.

It reached a point where Mamaw told J.D. he could stay at her house whenever he chose to, and if his Mom ever had a problem with that, Mom could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun, “This was hillbilly justice, and it didn’t fail me,” writes J.D.

He had done poorly in grade school, living with his mother, her fights and her parade of father-figure husbands, but living with grandparents during high school, his grades came up. He had time to look around him and see how others worked.

On a summer job packing flooring tiles for shipment, the boss also hired another young man whose wife was expecting her first baby.

The boss also gave her a job in the office. J. D. noticed the man rarely came to work on time, and took frequent toilet breaks lasting half an hour or more.

His wife hardly ever came to work three days in a row.

The man soon got fired, and blamed the boss, not himself – “How could he take a job away from a man whose wife was pregnant!” But J.D. knew his grandparents always expected him to do work, not just talk about it.

“Not all the white working class struggles . . . My grandparents were self-reliant, hard working.

My mother was another type: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful. I always straddled the two worlds, but there was always a safe place and a loving embrace if ever I needed it.

Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.

He wanted to be the first in his family to go to college, but he couldn’t afford tuition costs for even Ohio State U. Instead, he joined the Marines and found he still had a lot of growing up to do.

He came out of the next four years fit and forty-five pounds lighter, a self-confident adult after deployment in Iraq and nine months as a media relations officer in a large Marine base on the east coast. J.D. entered Ohio State University in 2007, went on to study law at Yale, and met and married the woman of his dreams.

Some might accuse this reviewer of spoiling the story by telling the ending.

But the point of this book is not what happened, but how and why it happened, and why it is still among the top ten best sellers on the New York Times non-fiction list, a year after being published.

While so many low-income earners in USA remain chronically struggling and dis-enchanted, what choices did J.D. make differently?

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