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Micah Reader in October 2017 by Brenda Levenson
J.D. Vance’s well-written memoir of his family, published in 2016, is pensive and reflecting, as its title implies. The tone is mature and honest in revealing a society with which few of us are familiar. A reader saw it as part sociology and part memoir, and so it is.
The daily life of a dysfunctional family makes for depressing reading. The society Vance depicts is one in which alcohol, drug addiction and domestic violence prevail. Readers commented on the “loyalty to family” that supersedes all else, no matter how outrageous some members’ behavior might be. Vance portrays a world that is “neglected and ignored” said one person. But one could argue that these two attributes are self-inflicted, that the total lack of curiosity and of ambition precludes any effort at improvement. Fifty years later “Nothing has changed since the 1960’s in spite of governmental efforts,” noted one person who worked early in his career with groups such as the one Vance describes. Our discussion veered to the Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States at the turn of the 19th/20th century, penniless, “neglected and ignored.” Through hard work and dreams for their children, the next generation would be sent to universities to become doctors, lawyers, scientists, successful entrepreneurs and more.
Rare among Vance’s entourage, his maternal grandmother, who had a violent marriage, moved from Kentucky to Ohio, because she believed that the change would benefit her family. There she acquired a suburban home with the comforts of the middle class and gave her grandson, J.D. Vance, a quiet place to do homework away from the chaos of his earlier years. His mother, albeit under-educated, promiscuous, addicted to drugs and alcohol, nevertheless took him to the public library before he could even read, getting him a library card and telling him how to use it. “Despite all the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me,” Vance writes. He would graduate from Yale Law School and become an attorney.
J.D. Vance concludes his memoir with a severe but realistic commentary on the elements that keep communities such as his from failing to achieve “the American dream.” His mother and her 5th husband earned a substantial income, but their spending sprees and the debts incurred challenge the example of the 1930s when the New Deal helped those who helped themselves.
Responding to one reader’s question, “Who and Why,” Hillbilly Elegy opens a window on a society and people that form a vast part of this country, and whose lifestyle helps explain much of our current political situation.