October 6, 2016

Reading : Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Virginia, Fall 2011
When listening to the audio version of Hillbilly Elegy, it feels like a book being read aloud instead of a story being told.  This isn't a criticism as much as an observation of how a charmingly genuine tone is set. As much as this is the story of rare achievement, it's really about the ordinary and how little we know of that life.

Even though audiobooks narrated by their author vary from making the book better (Tina Fey's Bossypants) to much worse (Jenny Lawson's Furiously Happy), I always choose to listen to a book if it's available in the author's voice over reading the written form.  I love the added personality, and imagining the pleasure the writers must have of being able to read aloud your own creative process.

Hillbilly Elegy is framed by the Hollywood narrative of a boy who grows up in a poor Appalachian community defined by violence and substance use, who then becomes a Marine and a graduate of Yale Law School.  While I think this is an amazing thing, I did think we were reminded of the leap more often than necessary.  The full portrait of his working-class white community that Vance illuminated was more than enough to show how difficult it must be to go from here to there.

To be honest, before reading this book I had no idea what states comprise Appalachia.  I had some nebulous geographical concept of it as the Midwest and South, but really it just brought to mind an outdated feeling of poverty and underdevelopment within the most developed country.  It's an interesting way to divide the country since it crosses state lines, including swathes or fragments of states (Virginia, West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina).

And that, above all else, is what I loved about this book--that it has made powerfully visible what is unseen.  I've written before about trauma, and how much these unseen experiences layer a person.  I think that for all the massive work we need to do in this country to eliminate racial injustices, we have an equal amount to recognize the deep disadvantages people face that aren't etched into their visible features. This isn't to discount the extreme trauma of centuries-long history of discrimination based on visible race (thoughts on that when I get to the awesome Homegoing next week).  It's to widen the scope of what we see and hear, which I'd like to think is my goal for everything.

Smokey Mountains Tennessee, Fall 2011

Vance details all the barriers facing this community--not just poverty, drugs, and violence, but hopelessness, resignation, scarcity of motivation, goals and role models.  He acknowledges the need for public social programs, but pushes us to consider the private root of the problems.  For example, he says supporting public education only works if there is also a supportive family environment that values education.  He says providing jobs only works if employees are motivated to work to their ability level.

In some ways, it reads a lot like a conservative pitch about personal responsibility: "You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness." Though Vance recognizes that his successes wouldn't have been possible without multiple fortunes that have little to do with his own inherent ability and drive--grandparents who prioritized his education, a supportive sister--he emphasizes the need to play an active part in your own path.

When I say conservative, that's not meant to be immediately negative; it's only descriptive.  I agree that it's important to balance respect for people's vulnerability with respect for their capacity for self-empowerment.  The question that remains at the end of the book is: how?  What are the solutions for eliminating the cycle of learned hopelessness?  If Vance feels there are major problems in the structures of family and work ethic, how do we rework these structures?

I don't think that "laziness" is an inherent quality in most people, and maybe some will read Vance's writing as judgmental.  At times, the message seems to be that people need to work harder, and we as a society need to push them to do so. I can see that; I've felt that.

I can also see that there's a landscape of limited opportunity that discourages people who otherwise have endless capacity to succeed.  He attributes it to people's mindset, that "if you think it's hard to get ahead, then why try at all?"  But I think there's a reason for that hopelessness and I wonder, why do people think that way, and how can we change not just the thought but the reality of that statement?

He writes: "Whenever people ask me what I'd most like to change about the white working class, I say, 'The feeling that our choices don't matter.'"  If we feel like what we do changes the course of our lives, we're obviously more compelled to be active.  The question is, how do we change that feeling? Is it by telling people to think different and simply believe in their own agency, or by changing their environment so that it really is true that their choices matter?  Likely both, but in what degrees and balance?

I'm not sure, either, but I really value that Vance has put forth his version of the problem for us to see.

Somewhere between Tennessee & North Carolina

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