This book came out last year at about the same time the book White Trash came out. The authors were interviewed on the various news and talk programs on TV. Both received about the same amount of public exposure and both books seem to be about similar topics. As the book White Trash was about twice as thick (at the same price) as the other, as well as appearing to be the scholarly one, I chose it over the other. However, I recently found a used copy of Hillbilly Elegy at the Half-Price book store, so I purchased it and Uni and I read it together. (I confess I had to look up "elegy." Webster defines it as "a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead.")
Hillbilly Elegy, subtitled A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was written by a young man named J. D. Vance, an ex-marine, a Yale Law School graduate and "a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm." This is, as the title tells us, a memoir. The author tells us of life growing up in rust belt Ohio in a lower middle class family with deep roots in the hills of Kentucky, from where his grandparents had migrated after WWII. Obviously, Vance has lived out "the American Dream;" he has risen above his raisings; and yet they are still with him.
Though his family's account is filled with tales of alcoholism, drug abuse, physical abuse, poverty, family breakups and struggles, it is not much different, I believe, from that of many families in America today. And though the book was a real page-turner and well-written, Uni and I both wondered as we read, why is this book so popular; why is it still a best-seller when the other book mentioned above seems to have fallen from public view? This question was on our minds all through the reading. I think I have some idea.
As we were reading the stories of the family and families in the book, Uni and I were brought back to our own extended families and those among whom we grew up. We began to realize that either of us could have written similar stories. Often we would stop reading to tell or re-tell stories of our own pasts which were quite similar to Vance's. We may not have had such a colorful background nor have risen quite so far, but we share much in common with the author.
It's tempting here to do a bit of comparison, to relate some tales of the pains as well as the blessings of our own family backgrounds. I'll resist, although a search through previous posts on this blog would reveal quite a bit. I'm sure that any who read this post could also come up with similar tales. In fact, what impressed me was the ordinariness of Vance's story.
Which brings me back to my question: why does this book continue to be a best-seller? Why is it a best-seller at all? I believe that the answer is that people who read books like this have no (or little) real idea about how people like Vance's family live. They know nothing about the lower-middle class and their struggles and problems. To those who have "made it" or who are of the second or third generation of those who escaped the "hillbilly" life, this is like reading of an alien country. They had to read about it through the eyes of one of their own, one who had "made it."
Vance's struggles are very much like those of many of us or at least of those we know. He tells of his own anguish as he's bounced from family to family, of his struggles to fit in and not ever feeling like he has, of his "Mamaw" - his one anchor in all the turmoil, of his dabblings in Christianity. (We can only hope he continues in this quest.) He pauses occasionally in his story telling to offer brief analyses and criticisms of the plight of rust-belt families. He seems to be still trying to put it all together, as many of his readers are probably still trying to do.
I believe that while the book will be informative for those readers who have never been exposed to this sort of life, it will also be cathartic for those of us who find ourselves in these pages.