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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good look at poverty and violence, and the struggle it is to grow up inside them and to then try to make a life outside of them. It’s a lot about class, community culture, and the persistent trauma of growing up inside a culture of constant stress and drama. Honestly, this hits very close to home, even in Missouri, and I know many people who grew up in such a way or are still trapped and impacted by similar childhoods.

My brother said this was a boring book, because it’s everything he already knows about the impacts of growing up in poverty and despair. In fact, his exact words were, “I thought it was boring and not that good, but we grew up in a poor area, so it wasn’t anything groundbreaking.”

This had me thinking about why my brother would expect a book about a culture in crisis to be groundbreaking. Does he feel as if there is some kind of reason or solution to poverty and violence that he does not yet know about? And why doesn’t he want to see the reality of some of our life experiences reflected back in his literature?

My mother said, “It is suited to those who have always had advantages and money and don’t understand those who haven’t.”

Now, on some level, I understand her comment, because she’s suggesting that the value of the book may be in its shock value for all of those who haven’t grown up in or surrounded by some level of poverty and hardship. But who in the world are these people? And what world do they live in that I don’t? How many blinders do they wear to help them overlook the struggle that is all around them?

Also, again, why would my mother, who understands the impact of growing up in poor, violent, stressful environment better than I ever will, not feel this book is also for her, and even, on some level about her?

I, on the other hand, found this story compelling, because I like taking an honest and raw look at the truth every now and then. Also, Vance’s take on what it’s like to try to be one half of a functioning relationship after that sort of upbringing was an eye opener. It actually explained a lot of things about a past relationship that still sometimes haunts me.

Vance’s upbringing represents about 1/5 of the children I’ve tried to teach, about 1/3 of the men I’ve tried to date, and about 1/4 of who I actually am as a person. I may not be an Appalachian Hillbilly, but there’s plenty of poverty, violence, and hopelessness in many of the towns I’ve lived in. There’s plenty of it within the homes of people I’ve known and loved. Why should I not want and expect to see that reality reflected back at me through literature?

On some level, I should be able to connect to this story better than all of those people with advantage and money ever will, because to them, it’s just another shocking story about something they may never truly understand. But I know it’s a truth of life in America, and it’s also frequently a losing battle.

When it comes to literature, to each their own, but perhaps the most fascinating parallel to the people in this story is how differently they can react to the same set of circumstances, so I can’t help feeling like the opinions of my brother, my mother, and myself are almost a reflection of the point of this memoir.

We each are in a place to choose how we see the world and how we react to it, and those choices identify who we inherently become. My brother would like to ignore it. My mother assumes that a book about poverty was written to teach the upper classes how to understand the lower classes. And I personally believe it’s a call to arms for the struggling lower classes to realize that while they aren’t the only ones who live inside poverty, stress, and often despair, the only legs out of it they are going to get will be their own. And the only way to use those legs is to fight down a lifetime of learned helplessness and self-defeatism to start taking big steps towards small changes.

I thought this was a raw, honest, compelling read, but I don’t know what you’ll take away from it as a reader. I suspect that it’s going to really depend on who you are when you come to this story. However, I can say that if you’re expecting something quaint and charmingly old-fashioned, turn away now. That is not the reality of growing up in a small poverty-stricken community.

Book 133 read in 2018

Pages: 264

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