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"Hillbilly Elegy" by J.D. Vance

I rarely get angry at a book or an author, but I found myself getting increasingly angry at J.D. Vance and his book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Angry enough to blog (so you know it must be bad.)
This book is filled with contradictions and in several places is downright crazy because of people making really poor decisions. I am disappointed that so many people I know love it and so many book reviews rated it as one of the best books of 2016. I thought it would be a story that would teach me something about Republican/conservative voters, so I wanted to read it. It did not do that.

A graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, and a veteran (marine), J.D. Vance is from Kentucky and Ohio (his family is originally from Kentucky but they moved to Ohio and the author spends much time traveling back and forth), so he grew up in a family of hillbillies. Most of them were very poor and didn't work and often moved to larger cities in Ohio to get jobs.
J.D. often calls hillbillies the nicest people you'll ever meet. Yet, in the book we find episodes that do not support that term.
1. His grandmother (mamaw) once had to take her kids into hiding because of his abusive, drunk grandfather (papaw).
2. Mamaw is also known as one of the meanest people around in her home county in Kentucky.
2. That same mamaw also poured gasoline on Papaw and set him on fire when he came home drunk one night. J.D.'s older sister helped put out the flames and saved Papaw, who subsequently moved out. As near as I can tell, no one was arrested for attempted murder, though Mamaw did intend to kill him and said so.
3. Mom was an abusive addict who had 6 or 7 husbands (I lost count) and often had no time for J.D., so he bounced around from home to home. His favorite home was with Mamaw, despite her bad temper and murderous tendencies.
4. One time mom needed J.D.'s urine to pass a urine test and fell apart when he said no. Oh, on another occasion, she also threatened to kill him and he had to run out of the car to get someone to call the cops. But he didn't want her to go to jail, so he later pretended it didn't happen. She never seems to get treatment and late in the book, after she relapses again, J.D. rents a motel room for her and gives her money she can reapply for her nurse's license,
5. Neighbors often stole from neighbors to pay for drugs. So much so that J.D. and his sister couldn't have bikes because they were afraid they'd be stolen.
6. Many, many people collected government money because they didn't want to look for work. And yet, J.D. says, these lazy people (his term) complained about other people who were on welfare.

I don't get it. And I don't get what we might be lamenting (the "elegy" part of the title). This is the culture we should be trying to preserve, J.D.? Houses turned into scrap yards, dismal public schools, pregnant teens getting married before they're out of high school, heroine addicts, people setting other people on fire?

You could have written about the closeness of extended families. Of neighbors helping neighbors. Of your friends (you hint that you have many, but you never name them.) But you wrote, quite honestly for the most part, about how awful your life was. And then your tell us how you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, joined the Marines, straightened up and graduated at the top of your class at Ohio State and then went on to one of the best law schools in the country.You wrote for the Yale Law Review. You worked with Senators and judges. You met the love of your life.
Good job. Something really to be proud of. Something not many people can do -- fewer even coming from your background.
But then you ruined all that by referring several times to those of us on the East Coast as elitists. You talked about how patriotic you are as if only people from middle America are patriotic. Give me a break:
"I'm the kind of patriot whom people on the Acela corridor laugh at. I choke up when I hear Lee Greenwood's cheesy anthem "'Proud to Be an American.'"
Seriously? Those of us in the Acela corridor are just as patriotic as you are. You hit a raw nerve, J.D. Because I don't think that song is cheesy (well, not too much), but I absolutely hate how the Republican party has adopted it as its song and in doing so has implied that the rest of us must not be proud to be American. Bull.
You're proud to be an American where at least you know you're free? We all care about freedom. Who the hell do you think is standing up and defending our freedom -- if not on the battlefield then in marches and calls to our deplorable leaders. (You even said that the Marines represent a cross-section of America. ) Greenwood sings about the lakes of Minnesota, the hills of Tennessee, the plains of Texas, and about the cities of New York, Detroit, Houston and LA. Areas that our new president and the GOP congress are trying to destroy while they support big business and their own wallets.
Two other things stand out. In one chapter you talk about how you were working for a state senator who was in support of the unscrupulous lending practices of pay-day lenders. And you agreed with him. Those lenders certainly helped you out that time that you forgot to pick up your paycheck and had a date. You contradict yourself later by saying that these predatory lenders aren't good for the people you grew up among. Well, which is it?
You also give statistics that say that children who go to diverse schools are more likely to do well. But beyond that, they need the support of people at home. Yet, you support a school voucher system, even while saying that it'll probably lump poor children in with more poor children. So, much for diversity and support.
There are more things that upset me in this book -- including a throwaway line about poor kids not needing pajamas. But I feel I should stop. For all his hard-earned education, J.D. is still calling people who grew up on different areas of the country elitists and that's not OK. He hasn't learned that there are poor people without jobs all over this country. He didn't learn that the brain drain applies to more than just Kentucky. I live in an area that is too expensive for most recent college graduates, who either have to live with their parents or move off the island. It's like that everywhere.

All I learned is that hypocrisy runs deep.


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