Monday, July 24, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - J D Vance

Subtitle: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

I enjoyed this book.  It's a memoir of sorts, the author only in his mid-30's, about a family from Kentucky growing up poor in a factory town in Ohio.  What I liked was how it gave insight into the life of this group of people.  I was not aware that thousands of families had migrated north from the mountains of Appalachia after WWII for jobs in manufacturing, bringing their culture with them.  The author illustrates the beliefs and family dynamics that have contributed to the poverty and hopelessness in the population and makes claims that his experience is endemic in the white working class of America.

"...hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist.  This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also make it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly."

"We were conditioned to feel that we couldn't really depend on people."

He describes how these families were ill-prepared to survive when the factories closed, how the educated and wealthy abandoned towns, leaving behind those struggling in despair. (His takeaway from the book The Truly Disadvantaged by Julius Wilson).

He joined the Marines and there he discovered he had a "learned helplessness" - a belief that the choices he made had no effect on the outcomes in his life.  He'd grown up in a town with small expectations and a chaotic home life.  The Marines, he says, taught him learned willfulness.

As an adult, he left behind the fear and lack of safety and stability and became empowered to be a protector and care for those he loved.  Being "part of a family, that for all its quirks, loved me unconditionally" he realized was a great strength.

In describing his community he notes that there is a mistrust of some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility and that the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen to where they are the most pessimistic segment of the population about the future of their children.

He learns when interviewing for jobs after finishing Yale law school that success depends greatly on networking and comfort with the culture he aspired to join.  This social capital is "a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors."

In reflecting on his home and community he identifies a constant readiness to fight or flee from living with alcoholic or drug-using parents with multiple partners and the resulting high level of instability.

I think his story sheds light on how people get beaten down through loss of income and a perception of lack of opportunity and how this mindset is passed on to the next generation.

Published: 2016  Read: July 2017  Genre: Auto-biography

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