Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
i heard about this book on mpr a couple months ago, where the described it as the book to read if you want to know more about rural white america in these divided times. i put it on my to-read list, then a month ago i found out that the mn state system office was doing an online book club with this as its first book. so i actually went out and bought a copy.
for me reading this book, i see it less as a testament to political division and more an explanation of family systems, gender expectations, poverty, and homogeneity in childhood. his family system was not good. there was a lot of fighting and a lot of violence. there were expectations to defend your family honor, especially for him as a boy. and even if accusations were true! there was substance abuse, no stable father figure that his mom kept around, and no stability or consistent support from his mom. his support came in the form of his grandparents, sister, and aunt, and he was lucky to have them.
and while he touches on poverty as an impetus for much of this, he also makes note that his mom was a nurse and made good money (when she worked). his grandparents made a chunk o’ change. but the values to hold down a job and come to work on time are not something his contemporaries hold dear. poverty can hold some people down, but i think his message is more about family systems than money. a family can be in poverty, accept assistance in the form of welfare and foodstamps, and it can still be happy, productive, and working on moving up in the world.
i came away from reading this wondering more about how to help out family systems that are violent and emotionally damaging. how to knock down these expectations we hold for masculinity (and femininity) that still haunt vance enough that he was ready to fight a guy who cut him off in traffic. how to desegregate the classes so those less fortunate can see how life could be if given or even shown the right opportunities. and mostly how to create a support system when so many of our fellow countrypeople are too dang proud to even admit they need help, let alone ask for it in this country of autonomy and bootstraps.
vance is right; digging out of the pit of despair starts at home, but recognizing the pit is the first step. the second is to create and provide a system of help before it’s too late.
i leave you with a quote from martin luther king, jr: “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
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