Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a book I loved and couldn’t put down. It’s written in beautiful English, but the primary reason I reacted to it as I did, is J.D. Vance (33) is so honest as he talks about the Appalachian values of his upbringing and how they relate to the social problems of his original culture. He wants people to understand these problems and see the real reason for them, as he sees it.
Born and brought up in Middletown, Ohio, he paints a clear picture of his dysfunctional family. Unemployment, violence, drugs, absent fathers, lack of a structured lifestyle, lack of understanding of the value of education and direction, are the main problems, as he experienced it.
The saving factor in his own life was his grandmother. He went to live with his grandparents in his late teens. His grandmother instilled in him the idea that he could do better with his life than he had up till then. He began to work at school, and, with sympathetic teachers, achieved good enough grades that he could go into the Marines for four years. He went on to Ohio State University, and from there to Yale. At Yale, he met a young woman from a different American culture, who taught him the mores of that culture which was necessary for him to become a successful lawyer. He learned how to dress and behave for success in the professional world. He points out that his adopted culture, with it’s different value system, is much better than his original environment in producing people who are successful in life. Presently he is a CNN contributor, and is considering running for the US Senate.
J.D. Vance considers that the real poverty of Hillbilly country is not simply material, but cultural. It is the product of the attitudes of the people. These attitudes include accepting fighting, violence and coarse language as being normal. Their fierce loyalty to their families, culture and country, discourage people from leaving to improve their lives. Young males are encouraged to consider education as being not for macho males, but only for “sissies.” People take advantage of government programs to sell food stamps so that they can have cell phones. This infuriates the people who aren’t receiving these programs. The most self-defeating attitude is that the actions of an individual can make no difference to any individual’s life. Neither respect for education nor ambition is encouraged.
The greatest value of Vance’s book is that it make us all reconsider our preconceived ideas about poverty, and what can be done by government to alleviate it. He seems to be saying that the hillbilly culture needs to accept responsibility for its own part in its problems. Education would seem to be helpful to do this, but this might be difficult unless the barriers against the value of education can be removed from the minds of the people. Teachers can only do so much to undo the influence of parents. The government throwing ever more money at the problem, is not the answer. This is a universal challenge, in and around many cultures, and the questions raised can be applied to all those others. It’s not money alone that is needed, it is a change of value systems.
This book raises many questions. Is J.D. Vance correct in his assessment of his culture, and the solution of its problems? Does it need to be said that some cultures ought to examine their value systems before blaming the government, corporations, colonialism, the loss or lack of jobs, and anyone else they can conjure up, as the root of their poverty? Should cultures be given ever more money when it has been shown that this doesn’t make any difference to their poverty? How can cultures be encouraged to change their destructive value systems? Perhaps more emphasis ought to be placed on individuals responsibility for their choices in life, and understanding the consequences of those choices.
Hillbilly Elegy should be read by all thinking people, with an open mind.
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