ADW here. After a long hiatus, I have returned to the blog! I will mostly focus on doing book reviews as I have lots of time to read during my commute to work and also discovered that I can get free library books on my Kobo (it's a great system). So, onto my first review.
Rednecks, white trash, hicks, hillbillies. Deplorables. These are terms that have come to the forefront of many discussions trying to understand the results of last year’s US presidential election. JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a very topical memoir of his life so far – he’s only 31 – as a poor hillbilly growing up in the US Appalachian region, eventually joining the US Marines and graduating with a law degree from Yale University.
I would like to think that I’m at least familiar and aware of the plight of “poor country folk” in the rural, non-urban US regions that have been struggling for a long time – and I also wouldn’t be surprised if this partially applies to parts of Canada as well. I’ve heard about this a lot in news media, and read many articles and essays on the issues, but at the end of the day, I’m just a guy in a big city that has very little actual understanding or first-hand experience of life in these regions. I don’t think I’m alone based on the conversations I’ve had with many others within my bubble world and I think sometimes we comfortable urbanites need to better understand life in other parts of our world.
Reading Vance’s candid first-hand account of life as a poor hillbilly helps provide context and makes it feel more real in a way that can’t be accomplished from an outsider’s perspective. We learn about Vance’s complicated family history, which includes a colourful cast of characters such as his swearing, gun-toting, sometimes violent, yet lovable grandparents – Mamaw once lit Papaw on fire when he came home drunk one too many times – and the Blanton men who would make you eat a pair of panties if you made fun of their sister. Vance also opens up about his childhood difficulties with an ever-changing cast of father figures and unstable family situation, and how he would have likely gone down a much darker path in life if it wasn’t for the support of his Mamaw, Papaw, sister Lindsay, and many other figures that people in similar situations aren’t so lucky to have.
I appreciated Vance’s perspective on many of the important issues facing the underprivileged – Does increased school funding really help if the kids go to school but are distracted by turmoil at home? Is bringing in child services really the best solution if the child is sent to a foster home away from other family? (I didn’t know that grandparents need to be licensed to provide foster care) How does having more jobs help if many people don't have the necessary discipline or skills? These are just some of the questions that come to mind while reading the book.
An elegy is defined as "a poem or serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead", but I'd like to hope that we aren't quite lamenting the dead yet. Although Vance doesn’t provide any answers to these complex issues that likely won't be solved anytime soon, I believe his experiences can help stimulate thoughtful thinking and discussion, which is probably a good place to start.