By: Rebecca Tinsley
Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance - publisher: William Collins
This memoir of a dismal childhood among the so-called white trash of Appalachia has been a publishing sensation. Vance's book appeared at the same time many Americans were asking how Donald Trump had become the Republican Party's nominee, and then their president-elect. Commentators have assumed the anger and mistrust expressed in the book informed Trump's voters, (although there is no evidence the white trash bothered to vote).
Hillbilly Elegy describes the dysfunctional, violent, narrow, inward-looking lives of people without hope, who, in the author's words, seek to blame everyone else for their failures. Drugs, alcohol, fighting over perceived insults, poor choices, wasting money on trinkets, early pregnancy, disastrous multiple relationships, and a view that education is "sissie" punctuate each bend in the road to social chaos and economic failure.
Tantalisingly, Vance describes "churches heavy on emotional rhetoric but light on the kind of social support necessary to enable poor kids to do well." Yet, he does not expand on this, except to say that although they consider themselves God-fearing, they do not go to church. In a book regrettably light on facts or data, he claims church-going is higher not in the south and rust belt, as is generally thought, but in the Midwest. It would have been interesting to know more about the role of faith, and the presence of organised religion, in Hillbilly life. Instead, the reader gets perhaps too much detail on the author's self-destructive family, and far few solutions.
Vance acknowledges a lack of agency in a community where no one knows anyone who has succeeded. Yet, he reaches no constructive conclusions about the need for role models or mentoring for young people, let alone better schools or the confidence to move to areas where work is available. His remedy is for Hillbillies to admit they are responsible for their dire situation; and to then study and work hard. Sadly, this is unlikely to have much impact since, as the author admits, white trash believe success is due to luck or incredible raw talent. Despite all this, it is a useful glimpse of underclass life, and it applies in other post-industrial societies, as well as rural African communities stricken by climate change.