Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - Not Your Typical Memoir

I first came across Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, at a restaurant in Palo Alto.  Molly, who hostesses Calafia, in the Town & Country Shopping Center, said that it's a must read.  Since then, I have seen it come up all over the blogiverse.  So, what could I do?  I got it, put it in my TBR pile, and then started reading it almost immediately.  Was it worth it?  I would say yes.  I'm giving it a 3.25/4, which, I think, is pretty solid.  The synopsis/blurb on the inside of the cover is pretty long.  But I think you almost need it to understand what this book is about.  Please indulge me.

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis - that of poor, white Americans.  The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside.  In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.
The Vance family story began with hope in post-war America. J.D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love" and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them.  They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility.  But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.'s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never full escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels.  And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this county.

I will start the review by saying that the 9-page intro is pretty cool...and also necessary.  This seems like a difficult subject to talk about and, especially, quantify.  There are some statistics late in the book, which I found a little dull.  But, mostly, it's what J.D. has learned, first, growing up in this culture and, second, "escaping" from this culture.

The next thing I will tell you is that the 1st 100 pages of the book just kind of meander along at the same pace.  It was interesting but not really grabbing me.  And then, on page 102 - Boom.  There's an important death in J.D.'s family, and I was hooked.  It wasn't quite as impactful as Gone Girl and Everything We Keep, but it still followed the pattern of the first 1/3-1/2 setting the stage for the rest of the book.

Based on J.D.'s upbringing, there were things he encountered as a young adult that he didn't understand but that most of us know automatically. For example:
1.  He didn't understand the difference between tap water and sparkling water.  When he tasted the sparkling water, he immediately spit it out.
2.  He ordered white wine and was asked whether he wanted sauvignon blanc or chardonnay.  He had no idea that there were different types of white wine.

I have to warn you that there is a lot of language - especially from J.D.'s grandmother, Mamaw! But, believe me, one of the best recurring themes of this book is "listening" to what comes out of Mamaw's mouth. Assuming you are not offended by strong language, you will definitely enjoy what she has to say.

Do yourself a favor and learn about a prominent culture in our country that you most probably don't know a thing about.  Read Hillbilly Elegy.






8 comments:

  1. I really liked this book too. It helped me understand my sister-in-law and her family more. Mamaw was certainly a spitfire!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't have any relatives or friends that grew up in that area. So it was a real eye-opener for me. But I did chuckle a bunch when Mamaw spoke.

      Delete
  2. I read this book and loved it from page one all the way to the end.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely a good and interesting read.

      Delete
  3. I've heard it's good so I went on the hold list at my library for the audiobook. It'll be a while because they only have a dozen copies of the audio. Looking forward to it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's getting tons of pub from everywhere. It's a discussion-provoking book, for sure.

      Delete
  4. I heard an extended interview with him on NPR. That was enough for me!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't hear the interview, but I did hear that it evoked a lot of interest for his book.

      Delete