Reading corner: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

By JD Vance

William Collins

They say that timing is everything and JD Vance would surely agree. In June last year, he published a memoir which chronicled his journey from growing up in a poverty-stricken town in rust-belt Ohio through to graduating from Yale Law school – via a four-year stint in the Marines.

Although the words “Donald Trump” do not appear, the book has become widely touted as a must-read for those puzzled by his victory. Since the election, sales have rocketed, Vance’s media appearances have surged and the author has become much in demand as a lecturer and commentator. So, is his sudden popularity merited?

Well, yes and no. The problem with stellar reviews – and the book has won gushing praise aplenty – is that they raise expectations. And while there is no doubt that Vance is a gifted writer and storyteller, anyone seeking some kind of catch-all enlightenment about Trump’s election win is likely to be disappointed. His victory was down to a myriad of factors and it should be remembered that the average earnings of his supporters was $72,000, more than the average US household income of $62,000.

That said, Hillbilly Elegy (great title) shines a light on the plight of white working class voters in battleground states and as a portrait of why the American Dream is floundering for so many, its importance is undimmed.

Much of the book is set in Middletown, Ohio, Vance’s hometown, which has been “hemorrhaging jobs and job for as long as I can remember”. His grandparents moved there from Kentucky in search of prosperity and jobs via the town’s then-major employer, Armco Steel. They were far from alone in doing so. Fellow economic migrants from the hills and mountains of the Appalachia region had long set their compass north towards the states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania during the Great Depression and then, once again, in the post-war years. On the surface, life – for a while at least – was good. But all too soon, the town’s giant steel mill fell victim to the shift of heavy industry to Asia and today, “abandoned shops with broken windows line the heart of downtown”.

Even before money became tight, however, Vance is at pains to stress that deeper problems were playing out behind closed doors. His was a highly dysfunctional upbringing, one where intense familial loyalty and patriotism were balanced out by alcoholism and almost daily verbal abuse.

He writes of a community where healthcare problems were common, citing “Mountain Dew mouth”, a term which refers to painful dental problems in young children due to too many soft drinks, (the author got his first taste of Pepsi aged just nine months) and one where drug addiction is rife (in 2014, more people died from drug overdoses than from natural causes in the country where Middletown is located). While most people claim to be religious, actual church attendance is plummeting and families are splitting up at astonishing rates – he had 15 stepdads growing up and by the time he was 10, he had 12 step-siblings. That he only emerged from the “learned helplessness” of his peers was, he says, down to luck, hard work and the encouragement and support of his grandmother.

Vance, a self-confessed Republican, believes that upward mobility will only begin anew if “we hillbillies wake the hell up” and seek out solutions themselves: “Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us … I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

Vance, for one, is poised to walk the walk – he is set to move back to Ohio from his current base in San Francisco to run a small nonprofit which will work on “battling the opioid crisis and bringing durable capital to the region”.  And with an increasing buzz around a future run for political office, it seems likely that we haven’t heard the last of JD Vance, not by a long way.