Friday, February 24, 2017

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

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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

Hillbilly Elegy was an interesting and entertaining read, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It is now often cited by liberals who are trying to be Trump apologists as a way of explaining the desperation that could lead people to vote for someone like Trump. If anyone is reading this book as a political argument or a road map to providing better social services to the Appalachian population, this is a poor choice. This is a memoir, not a piece of political analysis, and J.D. Vance is not a political scientist. He would make an extremely bad one. He's also not a social worker or social scientist and he makes a point of saying that his memoir is not meant to propose any solutions to the social problems that plague his community in Appalachia and the people from Appalachia who have migrated to towns like Middletown, OH in an effort to escape the poverty.

Hillbilly Elegy is a less poetic version of The House on Mango Street only it's about poor white people instead of poor Hispanic people. Sandra Ciscneros is a much better writer, and that's probably the main reason her book ever received the amount of attention that it did because what is clear from the reception of Hillbilly is America is dying for a reason to feel sorry for poor whites; Hispanics just shouldn't be here in the first place and deserve what they get, right? If they don't like it here they should just go back. I'm sure I'm missing some other choice comment.

In Hillbilly, Vance chronicles his experiences of growing up in a broken home, relying primarily on his grandparents as parental figures. He laments the ways his lower class family failed to prepare him for the art of fine dining, completing the FAFSA (because if you're wealthy, that form is fun), and navigating higher education. He joined the Marines right out of high school, probably because his ASVAB scores wouldn't cut it for any other branch of the military. I'm sure that's more elitism at work there.

I give Hillbilly four stars not because it is well-written because it's okay. It's nothing special. I like it because it is more revealing than the author probably intends when it comes to understanding the true machinations of the minds of this population of whites in our country who feel left behind and are dying for someone to blame. My philosophy is that it is always better to know the ugly truth than to not know. This book helps you know if you are willing to set aside whatever it is you want it to say and really take in how Vance describes his family and his perception of life so far. Approaching this work as that kind of journey will leave you more enlightened as a result.

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