Friday, December 23, 2016


And now, for something extra. Weekly book reviews from The Invisible Diva. Read 'em and weep (or laugh, or think, or smile...)

With the long stretch of holiday time ahead, it's time to get in some reading. This week, I recommend Hillbilly Elegy by  J.D. Vance.

From the moment I read the title, I knew this was a novel that would interest me. The tale unfolds in a small Ohio town that never recovered from the economic downturn of the 80's. As an Ohioan born in steel country, the story of the fall of Middletown is a familiar one. But, the specter of heroin addiction that hovers over every county in my state is not. Though rural poverty and blue-collar frustration is nothing new, it's obvious that this population feels increasingly hopeless and marginalized.  J.D. Vance made it out of that environment to go on to graduate from Yale Law School, so I hoped his novel could provide insight. I downloaded the book to my kindle, and promptly forgot about it. Then, something happened. Donald Trump was elected our 45th president, and I knew I needed to understand why.

Hillbilly Elegy is three books in one. First, it's an autobiographical tale of a young man's journey through the broken mechanisms of the rust belt. Second, it's a historical piece that details the two major migrations in the U.S. from hill country to the industrialized states of Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Third, it's a sociological glimpse into the fear, suspicion, and hopelessness of the working class, and the consequences these feelings hold for all of us.

We first meet J.D. as small boy playing in his personal paradise - the Kentucky home of his Great-Grandmother. Here, he and his cousins have the run of the mountain and are surrounded by strong male role models in the form of great uncles. It's also here that he learns the colorful family lore, as well as the rules of being Hill People: Fierce loyalty to family (even if that means going after someone with an electric saw because they insulted your mother,) devotion to community (you give what you can to help your neighbor, but anyone of those neighbors who thinks of taking without asking can expect a shot gun pointed in their direction,) and a respect for life (you stop and place your hand on your heart when a funeral procession passes, even if you didn't know the deceased or didn't think much of them, because they lived, and that's enough.)

J.D.'s real home is Middletown Ohio where he lives with his mother and sister, and a succession of father-figures. The steel mill has closed, leaving a gaping divide between the college-educated and the blue-collar, as well as an insurmountable poverty for those who depended on the mill for their livelihood. Mamaw and Papaw, the author's grandparents, are the center of young J.D.'s world, and he creates both a complex and loving portrait of them. Papaw was a drunk, and Mamaw was loud, foul-mouthed, and fearless enough to kill, yet, they were loving and wise. Together, they protected J.D. and his sister from the trauma of life with their troubled mother. What we know before we read the first paragraph is that Vance becomes a success story despite the odds. What we do not know is that his path will not be tidy. His story, in and of itself, is worth the read.

Beyond his life story, Vance introduces us to the two "hillbilly migrations" that involved whole families coming north from Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania in the hopes of obtaining a financially secure future. They left behind coal country and made their way up The Hillbilly Highway, or US 23, to the industrial cities that bordered the Great Lakes to take jobs in the steel and auto industries.  They also left behind traditions, tight-knit families and a way of life that was simpler than the one they were about to embrace. We learn that the companies hired family members in large numbers, forming small communities close to the mills and factories, thus creating a separation from the middle class families who already populated the towns. Prejudices arose among those who saw their ways, patterns of speech, and social norms as being "less than." When the factories closed, these sections of towns deteriorated, leaving an even more segregated population.

Throughout the narrative, we come to understand more about this segregation and the ways in which  it has created a population of Americans who are suspicious of government and government agencies, frustrated with the social service systems and those who use them, and feel invisible to the mainstream media as well as many of their fellow Americans. In this way, it's an important book. Vance has few solutions, but he does encourage us to ask the right questions.

So, when you get that Amazon card as a gift or on your next trip to the library, consider selecting this Hillbilly Elegy. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

No comments:

Post a Comment