Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” takes on, defeats stereotypes

A couple of years ago, I wrote a very critical blog post about a book, and the author actually responded.

The author had appeared on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” and I lambasted the author and host Terry Gross because I thought the story the author was telling was a complete whitewash. The author had spent time in prison and had read lots of books. He had dealt with the fact that his father was an immigrant by becoming a drug addict and committing strong-arm robberies in New York City.

Now he was “reformed,” he said.

I called B.S. on it all. Negative biographies have been all the rage for the past decade or so, and the “up from the gutter” narrative seems to require drug addiction, crime and more without any consideration for the victims of the author’s past behavior.

In reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, I finally realized that this was a story of someone who should be admired. He grew up in the most unstable of families, in an area of the country where poverty is endemic and even the “good economic times” aren’t so great, and with a drug-addict mother who repeatedly goes into rehab, recovers for a time and then relapses, and a rotating array of men who take up with his mother, and comes out the other side determined to rise above his upbringing.

Vance should be a positive role model for everyone regardless of race or color. He had a vast amount of help, though, and he admits that for all the government programs that try to mitigate the poverty and its negative effects, without a grandmother such as his in your corner, you might not win in the end.

She’s a “hillbilly” of the old school, Vance notes, but she moved out of Kentucky with her husband as a young woman to Ohio, where the husband went to work in a steel plant. This was back in the day when a man with little education could take a blue-collar job, stick with the same company for 30 years, and build a life and living.

She has lots of regrets, and this grandmother admits to making a horde of mistakes. Vance is drawn to her despite her toughness (and maybe because of it), and she pushes him to greater achievements. Her lack of education motivates her to push Vance to get an education. When he can’t afford the university, he joins the Marine Corps and achieves success there, then leaves and goes to college on the GI Bill.

One of the best stories, though, is about how he was going to take an advanced math class and needed a $180 graphic calculator. He didn’t have the money, he recounts, and tells his grandmother he’ll have to pass on the class. Somehow, she comes up with the cash, buys him the calculator and then makes Vance bust his ass in that class.

She wants her money’s worth, she tells him in ways that go beyond words. Vance doesn’t disappoint.

Wherever Vance goes, and whatever he does, it’s clear that his grandmother is the North Star who guides him toward success. He wonders at times what his life would have been like without her insistence that he do his best.

Unlike those who think education just gives people ideas above their station, Vance’s grandmother tells him those folks are idiots. She’s so plain-spoken as to be very un-politically correct, noting at one point that her daughter, Vance’s mother, could have done better than trying to kill herself with the family’s new car. She drove it into a pole in a suicide attempt, Vance recounts, and his grandmother notes that it was a waste, and if she really wanted to kill herself, she should have just asked to borrow one of her mother’s guns.

This plain-spoken determination might seem a bit shocking to many of us, but it’s part and parcel of the life the “hillbillies” lead. Opinions are held, strongly and – Vance notes – even when they’re wrong and disadvantageous.

As for the term “hillbilly,” it is to most of us a very pejorative term and one I would avoid using, but Vance uses it and almost embraces it to define a sense of self, family and community even in the midst of terrible circumstances. These folks are pretty strong when you get beneath the surface, I say, and remember that in the main industry of Appalachia, coal mining, it was not uncommon for labor disagreements to be conducted with weapons, and sometimes automatic weapons, borne by police and others in authority and aimed at not only men but women and children.

That breeds a toughness that we city folk will never know, and I admire it.

Vance is a man after my own heart in so many ways. He’s probably the only U.S. Marine to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11 and not get married and have several children during his enlistment. It’s not like in my day, when women and their parents seemed to prefer that their daughter marry federal prison inmates instead of people in the military.

But Vance is so focused that it’s scary. And he’s not alone. He tells the good, the bad and the horrible of how life can turn out, as layoffs destroy the community that the emigrants from Kentucky built in the Rust Belt, and how they battled to survive.

The scourge of drug abuse nearly destroyed their families and their futures, but Vance tells of people who emerged from high school drug-free, went to college or into the service, and eventually went on to great careers or came back to try to rebuild their communities. Beneath the photos of the drug addicted are the regular folks who go to work every day and try to build something against the odds.

I had one worry as I read “Hillbilly Elegy.” It was that Vance’s grandmother was such a force in his life. She helped him with her letters when he was in Marine basic training and his tours overseas. What would happen when she died? Would Vance revert to the way so many others had been?

As it turns out, his beloved grandmother’s death while he’s in the Marines doesn’t divert him from the right path. He mourns and then continues on, finishing his Marine service, readjusting to civilian life and attending college. After graduation, he goes to Yale Law School, though his biological father dismisses it as the “liberal” thing to do. He doesn’t care.

Today, J.D. Vance is married and a successful man working for a capital management company out west.

His story is an indictment of the many efforts to “help” the poor and white working class, and the allure of some political candidates who want those votes, promise much and deliver little.

Ultimately, Vance is saying, you have to go out there, find the best mentors you can and do the work.

That’s a great lesson for everyone, and I highly recommend you read this book.

 

November 6, 2016 Posted by | Life lessons, Vinny's Book Club | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment