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January 2017: Hillbilly Elegy (Vance)

posted Jan 17, 2017, 7:35 PM by Sherrill Lavagnino   [ updated Mar 25, 2017, 11:01 PM ]

Once again, the weather provided a dramatic backdrop for our book club meeting.  Despite the downpour, eight of us washed ashore at Maggie’s house on January 10 to discuss Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.  The book chronicles Vance’s difficult childhood in southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky.  Vance’s early years are shaped by his mother’s substance abuse and combative personality.  In his harrowing descriptions of her erratic behavior, Vance highlights the characteristic actions and attitudes prevalent in his family and his Appalachian community that helped to nurture his mother’s destructive qualities.  At the same time, he points to other elements within his family and community that helped him to take control of his own future, to get a quality education and, ultimately, to become a successful lawyer.  Sadly, Vance notes, various socio-economic factors seem to be making his story of social mobility increasingly rare.


We began by discussing the importance of certain key figures in Vance’s life.  In particular, his grandparents were a source of stability and inspiration for him, even though they had often been a disruptive force in the life of his mother.  The significance of such individuals in Vance’s story makes it difficult to see what sort of policy changes might help others to follow his path of success.  After all, you can’t legislate that everyone should have a sympathetic, yet demanding, grandmother.  There might be other ways, however, to provide more mentors to young people.  We also noted the social services policies and laws that prevented Vance from being placed in the custody of his grandparents when that would clearly have been in his best interests.  (He faced only the options, he believed, of staying with his mother or being separated from his sister and placed in the foster care system.)   Someone noted that policies these days would be more amenable placing children with relatives.  


It is also not clear how policies could address some of the other factors that Vance pointed to as impediments to his progress, such as the opinion amongst many in his community that pursuing an education was a betrayal of his roots and an evidence that he thought he was better than everyone else.  This culture of non-achievement seemed to baffle most of us, especially as it goes against typical American narratives about the importance of bettering oneself.  It’s hard to know how to change this outlook, especially without seeming patronizing.  One wonders, however, if these attitudes merely reveal a sense of pessimism and desperation that is a result of the economic decline that has plagued these regions for decades.  Pursuing educational and economic advancement can only be labelled as distancing oneself from one’s peers, after all, if it is assumed that those peers will be left behind.  If there is a general sense that success is open to all, then surely it would not be seen as odd to pursue it.  Vance’s book doesn’t suggest any specific ways to return optimism and hope to these communities.  However, as the recent election highlighted, we need to understand the challenges that these regions of our country our facing and to discuss ways that we can help them, or perhaps merely stop hindering them, from facing these problems.  As the success of his book attests, many feel Vance’s book provides a good place to get this conversation started.

-Karen B.