HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by J.D. Vance
Paperback: 272 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Any casual observer will have noticed the growing divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in developed countries such as Australia and the United States. The reasons as to why a large proportion of the population in such countries is stuck in cycles of poverty are complex.
Many middle and high-income earners either look upon such people, whom they classify as “rednecks”, “white trash” (or, in the Australian context “bogans”) with a mixture of bemusement and disdain. Emerging author J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy recounts his childhood and adolescence in just such a situation.
Vance’s family was from the Appalachian mountain region of Kentucky. Raised in a low-income environment, his aspirational grandparents, whom Vance refers to as Mamaw and Papaw – like many of their peers – were part of the massive migration of unskilled workers from rural areas to industrialised centres in search of work and a better life. In his grandparents’ case, the move was to Middletown, Ohio, the town where Vance spent much of his formative years, a town sustained by the steel industry.
While people such as his grandparents were able to live – to a certain extent – the American dream in the postwar decades when there was full employment, economic downturn and a gradual decline in manufacturing have had a severe impact on urbanised hillbillies.
Although these urbanised hillbillies sought a better life, their aspirations were, as Vance notes, limited. For example, in his social milieu, many students left school without a high-school diploma, and a tertiary education was not part of their expectations. As a consequence, people from such a background have faced increasing marginalisation as economic changes that have swept through the U.S. in the past generation.
Ironically, Vance’s own mother was able to obtain nursing qualifications that should have afforded her some economic security. However, she married young, and her first marriage soon ended in divorce. Sadly, relational stability was to elude her as she subsequently entered into a series of marriages and relationships, none of which lasted. In many of these relationships the author’s mother was the victim of domestic abuse. For his mother, these problems were compounded by drug abuse, and as a consequence, his mother often struggled to hold down a job.
His mother’s volatile relationships themselves had a negative impact on the adolescent Vance, and it was Mamaw who was to prove his salvation. Once he moved in with her, she refused to tolerate Vance’s complacent attitude towards his studies. Realising that education was the only way he would escape the cycle of disadvantage, she made him work hard and prioritised his education. For example, although she had little money to spare, she found the wherewithal to purchase a graphic calculator when Vance needed it for mathematics.
While Vance was motivated to achieve academic success – both as an undergraduate at Ohio State University, then at Yale Law School – he notes that the dysfunctional relationships of the adults left their scars. As a young lawyer, he soon noticed that the couples with whom he mixed did not resort to screaming at each other as their default response when there were differences of opinion. While dating his future wife, he had to learn how to deal with criticism in a constructive manner.
Vance’s own assessment of hillbillies is mixed. He admires and is thankful for the dedication of adults such as Mamaw, and he has a certain level of sympathy for their economic plight. However, at points of the work he is highly critical of their motivation and attitude.
Indeed, Hillbilly Elegy begins with him recounting a low-skilled holiday job he had to help him pay his way through university. One of his co-workers was a young man whose partner was pregnant. Vance noted that he had every reason to commit himself to working hard to provide for his family. However, he often took days off and extensive breaks, and as a consequence was ultimately sacked.
Hillbilly Elegy, with its descriptions of family breakdown against the background of economic downturn, is on many levels, disturbing. However, one cannot but admire the resilience of some of the people described within, particularly the author. It is the portraits of real and, in many instances, broken people that make this book so powerful, one which this reviewer found extremely hard to put down.
Michael E. Daniel is a Melbourne-based writer.