Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

I was interested in reading this book for several different reasons.  Yes, it's a best seller, but this one jumped out at me because the author's family is from Kentucky.  My mom was born and raised in Kentucky.  Her parents, my Mamaw and Papaw, left for Michigan in the early '70s after my mom wed a Yankee and moved to Massachusetts.

Despite growing up in extremely different home situations, I did feel somewhat connected to the author, J.D. Vance.  The roots of our families are the same.  However, in my case, it's only my maternal side.  J.D. grew up a witness to alcohol and drug abuse, with domestic violence and a rotating door of father figures.  I did not.

"Other people have all kinds of names for their grandparents: grandpa, nanna, pop-pop, grannie, and so on.  Yet I've never heard anyone say "Mamaw" - pronounced ma'am-aw or "Papaw" outside of our community.  These names belong only to hillbilly grandparents."

That's how my brothers and I were supposed to pronounce our grandparents' names, but we are Bostonians, so growing up we had different versions.  Now, as an adult, that's how I say their names, with an accent that doesn't belong to me.

My Mamaw and Papaw grew up in poverty outside of Lexington, Kentucky.  My grandfather left home at an ungodly age to work and presumably escape his home situation.  Neither of my grandparents graduated from high school and my mom tells stories of eating fried bologna and crackers for dinner.  In the early 1970s, after my mom had married my father and moved to Massachusetts, his state of origin, my grandparents relocated to Michigan.  Mamaw's sister had settled in the outskirts of Detroit a few years earlier after her husband was employed by a motor company.  My grandfather found work with Chrysler, who remained his employer for all of his working days.  His was a success story.  (Although, I have to say, he told some horrific tales. For example, the guy who drove a Japanese car to work and found it disassembled in the parking lot after his shift.)  Papaw enjoyed a comfortable retirement until Alzheimer's took over.    

"I'd like to tell you how my grandparents thrived in their new environment, how they raised a successful family, and how they retired comfortably middle-class.  But that is a partial truth.  The full truth is that my grandparents struggled in their new life, and they continued to do so for decades."

The author's story is heartfelt and well written, but I wasn't shocked by anything, nor did I feel it was groundbreaking or unheard of.  Vance's success is commendable, but he's not the only person to struggle and come out on top.  His story is not the story of all those who have grown up in poverty in Kentucky.  There are plenty of families who moved out and found a comfortable middle class life.  As I read Hillbilly Elegy, I kept wondering how this particular memoir had become so wildly popular.  Don't get me wrong - it's a good book, but is it that good?  And then I found my answer.  The Times, along with others, have listed it as a book to read in order to understand why Trump won the election, and we all know how this is a hot topic.  Hillbilly Elegy does not outright discuss politics and, in fact, the author states, ". . . I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better."  This memoir gives insight into and the social views of a certain portion of the population.  And, yes, this particular population swung from Democrat to Republican during the most recent election

I did enjoy reading Hillbilly Elegy - it just didn't blow my mind.  I do recommend it, especially if you enjoy memoirs and find interest in social issues here in America.

I want to end with this quote:

"At Papaw's funeral, as at other hillbilly funerals I've witnessed, the preacher invited everyone to stand up and say a few words about the deceased."

Is this true?  Does this only occur at hillbilly funerals?  It happened at my Papaw's funeral and being from Massachusetts, I assumed it was a Southern thing, not necessarily "hillbilly."

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Teej said...

Our preacher invited people to stand up and tell stories about my father at his funeral, and it was in Orlando. Which is not even really Southern (in the South but not Southern). And he was definitely not a hillbilly.

I read the massive nonfiction book "White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America" last year to learn more about class/hillbilly culture. It was...dense and repetitive. I didn't really enjoy it. I saw in some reviews on Amazon people saying that "Hillbilly Elegy" was better and more illuminating.

Thanks for the review!

Sarah said...

Interesting on the comments at funerals. I didn't think that could be possible.
White Trash is on my read list. I have a few other books to get to first. I'm interested in reading it but I don't want it to be too dry.

Teej said...

Oh, I was just thinking...I wonder if inviting stories about the deceased is more common with evangelical churches? Our church was pretty evangelical, as are many in the south.

JW said...

I read it after hearing all of the hype and I wasn't blown away either. It was good and I would recommend reading it but I think it has gotten more promotion because of the election.

Tracie Richey said...

I just finished listening to it on Overdrive and I really liked it! I like hearing the author's voice when they are reading in first-person and this is a memoir. I've been wondering about how people get trapped in a drug-consuming lifestyle and how it can be common to neglect to raise children so I enjoyed this book. It was the right combo of chatty-folksy and sociological-factual. I have read other books about young men improving themselves through education and hard work (sometimes in the military) but this is the first one I can think of where the young man is white from Ohio/Kentucky. I love his happy ending.