Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, now in its 28th week on the New York Times bestseller list, is a memoir written and published at just the right time, as Americans coast to coast struggle to figure out how we got ourselves into the violently polarized political mess we're in.
Vance, a self-described hillbilly who is now a Silicon Valley investment-firm lawyer, offers his take on the subject with this story of his upbringing. Originally from Kentucky, his family hit the Hillbilly Highway as part of the early-to-mid 20th century migration of Appalachians to northern Rust Belt cities. At the time those cities were thriving; now many are as hopeless as the hollers from which the migrants fled.
Vance's early life makes for fascinating, if heartbreaking, reading. There's lots of bad judgment on the part of his elders. Plenty of poor life decisions. Much substance abuse, violence, and bad grammar. But despite the dysfunction of his mother and most of her men, Vance grew to appreciate the value of effort and education. This was largely due to his grandmother, Mamaw, a firebrand who once doused her drunken husband with gasoline and dropped a lit match on his chest. (In her defense, she had warned him that she'd do it, he survived largely intact, and he was less inclined to get hammered ever after.) Mamaw also saw to it that Vance did his homework. Her house became his real home.
His academic diligence, followed by a stint in the Marines, paid off handsomely, winning him entry to Ohio State and Yale Law School. Depending upon your point of view, the pages that narrate the courting of Yale law-school students by the most powerful of the big corporate law firms may strike you as almost as nauseating as the hillbilly dysfunction. Vance himself seems OK with it, although he has a lot of proper-fork-for-the-course learning to do.
And that's my main problem with this book. While plenty of critical (and admittedly compelling) attention is paid to the degraded state of the shiftless "have-nots," not much is said about the culpability of the "haves," those on the privileged side of our Grand-Canyon-sized income gap, the side Vance fled to with the speed of a famished cheetah. But not everyone can become a Silicon Valley millionaire or a corporate CEO. I wish Vance had given more thought to what his influential new crowd might do to improve the lives of all those hillbillies back home.
~Ann, Adult Services