“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” has been trumpeted as a book about why poor white folks voted for Donald Trump. To me, that’s a trumped-up pronouncement.
If you’ve read “The Glass Castle,” a stellar memoir by Jeannette Walls, this will be familiar. Children struggle to escape the poverty and the quagmire of generations of underachievers. There is dysfunction, drug abuse, domestic violence, joblessness, aimlessness, a overwhelming sense of stagnation. Like Ms. Walls, Mr. Vance rose above his circumstances, beat the odds and grew up to be more than the sum of his parts. Vance then looked deeper into just why he — and not others — was able to do so.
In a nutshell? His grandmother loved him, nurtured him, pushed him to succeed and filled in the gaps and it made all the difference. She made him see the possibilities.
“Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,” my grandma often told me. “You can do anything you want to.”
Eloquent, she’s not. But she believes in her grandson and provided him with some stability and encouragement to be his best.
Vance writes: “Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’ when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes of my life.”
He raises many questions, but he doesn’t offer many answers as to how this can be prevented. Government aid and intervention help, but they aren’t enough. The real solution, he believes, involves vast cultural change. That segment of the population has to change its outlook and belief that there are few possibilities for its citizens. That means walking the walk (not just preaching responsibility but actually being responsible), trying harder, self-reliance and not self-pity.
As the New York Times said in its review, Vance offers “a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump.”
Vance writes of the underclass among whom he grew up (an underclass found not just in Appalachia and the Rust Belt, but throughout the country): “There is a lack of agency here — a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.”
He says: “There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society of the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day. … the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.”
Sounds like rhetoric from the 2016 presidential campaign, doesn’t it?
Vance didn’t write this book as a political statement. He wrote it to try to understand his success and his ties to his family and community. As an adult, he straddles two worlds. He takes a deep dive into his psyche and his fear that maybe he can’t completely escape the dysfunction and struggles that marked his early years.
It’s an eye-opening read from a political standpoint in the aftermath of the presidential election and a look inside hillbilly culture many of us only know through stereotypes. It’s a story of betrayal and loyalty, of struggle and crisis and of both loving and despising where you come from.