Book of the Month/December 2018

My choice for this month’s book is Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. It is, in a number of ways, a powerful and moving book. I listened to it through Audible, and as it is read by the author himself, I got an additional sense of closed rhetorical distance—like he was riding around in my truck with me, telling stories.

Vance grew up in Ohio, among his people, who had all migrated from Kentucky. “His people,” as I put it, were white, working class poor—hillbillies. Many of the families in this subculture were little more than slow motion helicopter crashes, and Vance’s family was no exception. His mother had a long term problem with drugs, and went through men in a way calculated to teach Vance that no man is going to be around here for very long. If it had not been for his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, he would have been utterly wasted by the experience. At the same time, his grandparents were might be called “old school” hillbillies, and they did have some issues of their own. But the thing they supplied was tenacious loyalty and a place of reasonable stability.

The book records Vance’s growing up, how he joined the Marines out of high school, how he went to Ohio State, and then graduated from Yale Law School. It is a description of how he was successfully transplanted from one culture into another one, and without at all losing “the eyes” his home culture had given him.  

I was surprised at how autobiographical the book was. I was expecting some autobiographical elements, but with a focus on the larger demographic issues. And there was some of that, but with the emphasis the reverse of what I was expecting. That said, the surprise was a pleasant surprise.

Growing up, Vance spent time with a part of his family that was into a fundamentalist form of Pentecostal Christianity. This experience was nice, because the people were not yelling at each other all the time, but it was also a form of the faith that did not know how to equip the saints to deal with serious questions about the faith. Later in the book, there is a brief indication that Vance was returning to explore some form of Christianity, and the overall impression you are left with is a very high value Vance places on the social capital that the Christian faith supplies to poor people. This is obviously true, but I was wanting Vance to get into the question of whether the faith is true. Did Jesus rise from the dead or not? But that element is missing. I only say it is missing from the book, not necessarily from Vance’s searching.

I should mention something of a language alert. If you are listening to this book in the car, there are probably sections you wouldn’t want your five-year-old daughter to overhear. She might repeat things to her kindergarten teacher and then get sent to the office. But Vance’s reporting “how it was” did not seem to me to be gratuitous, but still,

One last thing. This book came out right before Trump was elected, and if you are still one of those people for whom his election is right up there among all the grand mysteries, this book—although not about Trump—is all about Trump.

Highly recommended.  

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