Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Summer Reading: Hillbilly Elegy

After sitting on my bookshelf for almost six months, I finally dove into Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Much like another book I recently read, How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana with Abigail Pesta, this novel is a by-the-numbers memoir. In both instances, it is the content that distinguishes each. Both Vance and Uwiringiyimana come from very different perspectives. Both novels concern their respective protagonists real struggle with adversities, and while How Dare is the story of an immigrant to the U.S., Hillbilly Elegy tells the author's story of growing up in Appalachia, an American local that often feels alien.

Despite being smack-dab in the center of the United States, J.D. Vance and his family struggle with achieving an American Dream recognizable to most. As described by Vance, much of what is "normal" within the context of his community is very different than the America with which the general reader might be familiar outside of exploitive reality television. Alcoholism, abuse and poverty all contribute to the family's problems, and each issue seems ingrained in the way of life depicted. Ultimately, Vance uses his personal hardships, as well as those of his close-knit hillbilly family, as a vehicle for bringing to light the social problems of his hometown. The thing that the author points to as having eventually saved him are the values of his Hillbilly community as embodied by his cantankerous, angry and loving grandmother, referred to throughout by the sobriquet Mamaw.

In many ways there are two books under a single cover: one is the story of Vance's relationship with this key figure in his personal development and the other a social commentary. For my money, the latter which is far more compelling. If much of the text is somewhat detached in its voice despite employing very conversational language, when illustrating his relationship with Mamaw that Hillbilly Elegy comes to life. Mamaw is a beautifully developed "character." Presented as an imperfect maternal figure that continues to push Vance toward some semblance of success, it is clear that both Mamaw and Vance sense that the price for any upward mobility would be their relationship.

Widely available on the shelves of your local public library, I recommend Hillbilly Elegy as an interesting summer read. Vance's story is compelling, especially as part of wider consideration of the kaleidoscopic American experience.

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