Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By JD Vance
(William Collins, pp273, hardback £14.99)
A review by John Gaye (first published in the Sherborne Times)
This book was not on my short list to read, indeed I had never heard of it, and when recommended it I did not hold out much hope of enjoying it. How wrong was I.
This is a memoir about white working-class America, written by someone who, having been born into it, can write about it very frankly without fear of being accused of any ‘ism’. In a year when the various American coastal elites have been shocked by the arrival of a populist new president not moulded from the usual Ivy League background, it certainly goes a long way in explaining his rise to power. But more than that this is a thought-provoking book about tribal loyalties, about nature v nurture, about patriotism and religion but, above all, about the importance of having someone in one’s life to provide inspiration and motivation to improve one’s lot.
JD Vance (known as JD by all) was born in 1984 into a totally dysfunctional and dirt-poor family, which originated from Kentucky’s Appalachia region. His mother is dependant on various drugs, his natural father is a distant character and his many and varied stepfathers come and go with monotonous regularity. However throughout all this JD and his sister have one constant in their lives, their maternal grandmother, ‘Mamaw’, a hard-living, sometimes violent (particularly when defending her family) and hard-swearing woman, much feared by both her extended family and the local community, who nevertheless provides that maternal love and inspiration that propels JD to college and eventually to Yale Law School, from which he graduates with a (non-hillbilly) wife, a sound middle-class career and some serious hang-ups from his childhood.
This moving memoir has some really colourful characters and a certain amount of ironic humour. It spares us nothing of the day-to-day stresses of living amongst a very closed tribal community that too easily falls into the welfare dependency traps that are as common here in Britain as they are in America. Having escaped this culture the author looks back dispassionately and asks many rhetorical questions.
He points out that achieving the ‘American Dream’ of upward social mobility is far more easily achieved in many European countries than in America. He wonders why, despite being white and Christian, he and his hillbilly culture get so little sympathy when compared to many of the ethnic minorities.
His world is a world of truly irrational behaviour. “We spend our way into the poorhouse.” “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we’ll get a job, but it won’t last. We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise…… or for taking five 30 minute restroom breaks in a shift.”
He also writes about the deep patriotism and Christianity inherent within his hillbilly culture: “Mamaw always had two gods; Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different and neither was anyone else I knew.”
This is a book which, unlike any other that I have come across, gets to the core of a significant element of American society which mirrors many of the cultures or ‘tribes’ that are present within British society as well. It is well worth being included on anyone’s reading list.