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Hillbilly elegy : a memoir of a family and culture in crisis
2018
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  New York Times Review

IT MIGHT BE said that the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump has something in common with Hurricane Katrina. In exposing how a major American city can share traits with the developing world, the storm broke apart one of America's prevailing ideas about itself: the myth that for all our inequities and intractable social blights, this is still fundamentally a land of equal opportunity. Trump, through sheer dint of his own bluster, has conducted his own version of this exposé. By forcing bluestate liberal types to reckon with a demographic they had long dismissed as a punch line - low-income, uneducated whites in economically depleted regions - he awakened them to the fact that the groovy progressive social values they had assumed were a national fait accompli were actually only half the story. J. D. Vance, a son of Appalachian poverty who eventually graduated from Yale Law School and now works in Silicon Valley, has found himself lately in the position of both telling that story and translating its political nuances into terms easily understood by coastal elites more accustomed to caricatures. His best-selling HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper/HarperCollins, $27.99) is an affectionate yet unflinching look at growing up in social and domestic chaos in southwestern Ohio. Since his people originally come from Kentucky coal country, Vance claims the right to call himself a hillbilly. He does so with pride, but his family dysfunction is baroque, to say the least. His drug-addicted mother nearly kills him, yet he refuses to testify against her in court in order to spare her jail time. His grandmother, who's the most stable force in his life, is famous for having poured gasoline on his grandfather and dropping a lighted match on his chest. (Their 11-year-old put the fire out, and the grandfather survived with just mild burns.) Vance escapes by way of the Marines, then Ohio State University, then Yale Law School, where he discovers a provincialism opposite but nearly equal to the kind he grew up with. Many of his classmates have never spent time with a veteran of a recent war. One professor, apparently unaware that public universities are a lifeline for smart, working-class kids, suggests that the law school "shouldn't accept applicants from non-prestigious state schools." Too often, America's longstanding discomfort with talking candidly about social class can make memoirs about hardscrabble upbringings sound like public service announcements. But if Vance is an adroit enough storyteller, he's a fiercely astute social critic of the sort we desperately need right now. Instead of cleaving his narrative to a political or ideological agenda, he wrestles honestly with the messy contradictions inherent to any conversation about race or class. For all his affection and empathy for his hillbilly brethren, he's not afraid to show the ways opportunities can be squandered not just by addiction or systemic failure but also out of laziness or stubbornness. "Our homes are a chaotic mess," he writes. "We scream and yell at each other like we're spectators at a football game.... A bad day is when the neighbors call the police to stop the drama. Our kids go to foster care but never stay for long. We apologize to our kids. The kids believe we're really sorry, and we are. But then we act just as mean a few days later." A similar frankness animates Josephine Ensign's CATCHING HOMELESSNESS: A Nurse's Story of Falling Through the Safety Net (She Writes Press, paper, $16.95). Ensign, who now teaches at the University of Washington, traces several years in the late 1980s when she headed up a barebones medical clinic for the homeless in Richmond, Va. At 25, she has studied at Oberlin and Harvard but is still beholden to the legacy of her Bible Belt family, which is "riddled with Christian zealots, ministers and missionaries" and has put her in a "sort-of-arranged marriage" to an aspiring preacher. As she cares for patients with AIDS, tuberculosis, scabies and maggot-filled wounds, Ensign has a child and lives with growing reluctance "within the clearly defined roles of Southern Christian white women: a sort of nurse-missionary to those suffering from inner-city poverty and homelessness, a dutiful daughter, a wife and a mother." Though Ensign manages to avoid catching a communicable disease from her patients and even survives a needle stick that forces her to stop nursing her son until the patient could test negative for hepatitis and H.I.V., she finds she's vulnerable to some of the same forces that ravage the lives of her patient population. Over the next several years, her marriage falls apart, she loses (or gives up; it's not entirely clear) custody of her toddler, is forced out of the clinic for thwarting Christian values and winds up effectively homeless. How and why exactly all this transpires is hard to say, mostly because Ensign never really says. As if under a gag order, she skates over the details of her divorce and parenting arrangement and takes the reader headlong into a phase where she is, by turns, suicidal, addicted to exercise and sexually promiscuous. If "Catching Homelessness" doesn't quite work as a memoir, it succeeds rather heroically on the level of document. Ensign takes us back to a time when state-run psychiatric facilities had only recently attempted to integrate patients back into the community and "street people" were a relative novelty in some cities. Moreover, she looks head on at the particularities of homelessness in the South, the complexities of the racial divide and the fraught legacy of whites as savior figures. Writing about attending the funeral of a patient so estranged from his relatives that he had made her his next of kin, she recalls seeing his family for the first time: "He had never mentioned them, never asked for them in his final days. He died alone. They were black, I was white and we were in the capital of the Confederacy, where it's not easy to be color-blind." Some 400 miles to the southwest and some four decades earlier, Wilma Dykeman, then in her 20s, was writing her own story of grace and moral gravity in Appalachia. Though she would go on to publish 18 books, many dealing with issues around civil rights and environmental activism, Dykeman's memoir, FAMILY OF EARTH: a Southern Mountain Childhood (University of North Carolina, paper, $18), wasn't discovered until her death in 2006. In print for the first time, it's a haunting and exquisite book, not to mention a rare exception to the rule that no one so young should write a memoir. Even without much life experience, Dykeman has a great deal to say about life. "Family of Earth" is ultimately a tribute to the author's father, who was 60 when she was born and died when she was 14. Cleverly organizing her book into 14 chapters, each accounting for a year of her life with her father, Dykeman somehow manages to make even her infancy and toddlerhood worthy of reflection. "But what takes place in that first year?" she writes. "When does the fresh papyrus of memory begin to record the cuneiform symbols of what was said, or who dropped the white china plate and broke it to bits, or when the sun shone or the snow fell?" Later, with less romanticism if equal virtuosity, she describes the cruel cycle of afflictions endemic to poorer neighbors: "I can remember being repulsed and being held by the gaunt unhealthiness of their faces.... Nothing came beautiful and free alone; there was some element of worry, of sickness, death, or ruined crops, in every season and every day." Vance and Ensign might see their figurative if not literal ancestors in this description, and election-saturated readers may see the roots of Trumpism in those ruined crops and worried faces. But to read "Family of Earth" is to fall into the embrace of a Southern landscape that, in the hands of this author, is as cerebral as it is sensual, that gives us not just the bad news about the state of our union but grants a special wisdom to those willing to look beyond regionalism and actually understand something about a region. It shouldn't take a storm - or a turbulent political season - to confer such lessons. MEGHAN DAUM'S most recent book is "The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion."

  Publishers Weekly Review

In this compelling hybrid of memoir and sociological analysis, Vance digs deep into his upbringing in the hills of Jackson, Ky., and the suburban enclave of Middletown, Ohio. He chronicles with affection-and raw candor-the foibles, shortcomings, and virtues of his family and their own attempts to live their lives as working-class people in a middle-class world. Readers get to know his tough-as-nails grandmother, Mawmaw, who almost killed a man when she was 12 in Jackson, but who has to live among the sewing circles of Middletown. Her love for children, and for her grandson in particular, fuels her dream to become a children's attorney. When Vance finishes high school, he's not ready to head off to Ohio State, so Vance joins the Marines, completes a tour of duty in Iraq, and returns home with a surer sense of what he wants out of life and how to get it. He eventually enrolls in Yale Law School and becomes a successful lawyer, doggedly reflecting on the keys to his own success-family and community-and the ways they might help him understand the issues at stake in social policies today. Vance observes that hillbillies like himself are helped not by government policy but by community that empowers them and extended family who encourages them to take control of their own destinies. Vance's dynamic memoir takes a serious look at class. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Summary
<p>#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER, NAMED BY THE TIMES AS ONE OF "6 BOOKS TO HELP UNDERSTAND TRUMP'S WIN" AND SOON TO BE A MAJOR-MOTION PICTURE DIRECTED BY RON HOWARD</p> <p>"You will not read a more important book about America this year."--The Economist</p> <p>"A riveting book."--The Wall Street Journal</p> <p>"Essential reading."--David Brooks, New York Times</p> <p>Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis--that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for more than forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.</p> <p>The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love," and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.'s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.</p> <p>A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.</p>
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