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“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance addresses a demographic that has been the center of debate – especially regarding the presidential election this year: the white working class.
Specifically, the book highlights the absence of opportunities, broken homes, drug use, and the omnipresent fear that the next generation will be worse off than the current one. Mr. Vance is uniquely qualified to offer his opinion on the plight of the white working class, because he lived through it.
The book promises to be different from the very start. In the dedication page, Mr. Vance thanks his grandparents, “Mamaw” and “Papaw” – words one cannot help but read with a country drawl.
Mr. Vance begins with a self-deprecating disclaimer that makes him instantly likable and earnest: “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.”
Mr. Vance is keenly aware that some might scoff at a memoir written by a 31-year-old, albeit one who is a graduate of Yale Law School. But what justifies his telling of the story is one tragic and surprising truth: The opportunities he and so many other Americans take for granted are all but nonexistent in the town he calls home – a town that is, unfortunately, not alone. The circumstances that have hamstrung the lives of so many young Americans are tragically pervasive.
Mr. Vance takes a hard look at those circumstances. “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.”
The narrative follows his family tree from the hills of Kentucky to the suburbs of Ohio. He details the hard-fought but tangible social mobility that his grandparents achieved, the less clear-cut quality of life their children experienced, and finally, Mr. Vance himself – a rare exception in an otherwise suffering generation.
Because their mother was constantly marrying and divorcing, Mr. Vance, and his sister, Lindsay, suffered through what he tragically calls a, “parade of father figures,” and “failed paternal candidates.” He admits that his feelings towards his mother oscillate between anger and sympathy. Her struggle with drug addiction, men, and poor financial decisions are things for which he does hesitate to fault her, but he also recognizes that the trauma of a tumultuous home life – sadly common for the area – may have put her on that self-destructive path.
His Mamaw and Papaw were wonderful and caring people in his time, but when rearing his mother and her siblings, they had alcohol-fueled fights that often ended in violence. This, Mr. Vance believes, may have contributed to the burdens his mother carried with her and later placed on her own family.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene is seeing a teenage Mr. Vance face the dilemma of helping his mother pass a drug test by giving her his urine, and thus, enable her drug habit, or refusing, allowing her to fail the test and in all probability lose her job. It was episodes like this that drove Mr. Vance to live with his grandmother full-time.
Though he grew up in a town where his mother’s drug habit and job prospects are not out of place, Mr. Vance managed to defy the odds on both counts. He seems to have recognized the dichotomy between the life he wanted and the life he had, since childhood.
The author is humble enough to refrain from attributing his exceptional success to his own merit – though that certainly played a role. He recognizes that, for a working-class kid from Middletown, Ohio, a support system is all the more important if he is to see any sort of social mobility. He notes that the encouragement he had from his grandparents, sister, aunt, cousin, and others is a resource few others in his hometown are able to tap into. “Remove any of these people from the equation, and I’m probably screwed,” he writes
In addition to people, Mr. Vance was pushed forward by institutions as well. Most notable, the Marine Corps and Yale Law School – the former offering a boost to willpower and self-confidence and the latter a tightly knit network of professionals and advisors.
The book is occasionally reminiscent of George Packer’s “The Unwinding,” though less overtly political and multifaceted. On his return trips home from the Marine Corps, college, and then law school, Mr. Vance witnessed the declining state of his hometown. Middletown itself decays with the hopes of its residents.
The street where the proud manors of wealthy industrial families sat is now a gathering point for drug dealers and their customers. In Mr. Vance’s words, “Main Street is now the place you avoid after dark.”
Mr. Vance speculates on what has caused this dire situation for white working-class towns. He explores policy, culture, and character, ultimately concluding that he has no great solution to offer. Instead, he echoes the fact that his life has been testament to loving, supportive adults and that stable homes make all the difference in a child’s future.
Mr. Vance concludes his book by recalling himself doing Christmas shopping for children in need, and meeting with a young man from Kentucky named Brian, who reminds him of a younger version of himself.
Mr. Vance leaves the reader with a haunting question: “What happens to Brian?” Does he, like Mr. Vance, beat the odds and go on to find a loving partner and a good career; or does he instead become trapped in the life that has destroyed Mr. Vance’s mother? The reader finishes “Hillbilly Elegy” knowing which he hopes will happen, and which is more likely.