It’s Memoir Monday here as we work our way through the month-long blogging bonanza celebrating the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982. I’m reviewing memoirs I’ve read recently, as I’m apt to do frequently on this blog because good writers know that reading works in their genre makes them better.
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J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the “it” memoir of the season. I heard more than one broadcaster recommend it as a look inside the mind of a Donald Trump supporter, almost as if Trump supporters are alien specimens which require entire research papers to understand.
The Trump-type fans Vance describes are schizophrenic. Many people he witnessed in the Rust Belt region would cuss about welfare mothers while collecting their own dole. At one point, he describes his “bleeding-heart” grandmother who looks down her nose at the Section 8 neighbors this way: “If she blasted the government for doing too much one day, she’d blast it for doing too little the next.”
So Hillbilly Elegy does illuminate some of the anger and dichotomies in at least a couple of red states, but it does more than that. What I found most interesting was the parts of the memoir that tell “the story of how upward mobility really feels.”
Vance was raised mostly by his grandparents, who were born in Kentucky’s poverty-stricken Appalachian region and raised their middle-class family in Middletown, Ohio, where the steel industry was disintegrating while he was growing up.
I was a reporter for four years in the early ’90s in Middletown. Though I read the reports of the business writer in the newspaper everyday, I didn’t realize I was witnessing the end of an age. Vance does an excellent job of illustrating the bigger picture by telling the story of his own experience immersed in a culture of abuse, drug-use, alcoholism and poverty.
He overcomes the odds against him to graduate from Yale Law School (spending considerable time profusely thanking the individuals who saw potential in him), and he learns first-hand the chasm between fans of Cracker Barrel’s nutritionally deficient menu and elites who use 12 different pieces of flatwear for dinner.
I haven’t experienced the upward mobility Vance has, but his descriptions of feeling like a foreigner in an exotic land felt familiar in some ways. I’m the only one of my Minnesota grandmother’s 14 grandchildren who lives more than 200 miles away from her, the only one who’s traveled to five continents, and probably the only one who eschews Cracker Barrel (I’m also the only one currently living in what might loosely be called a trailer park, so there’s that).
Vance writes beautifully, he creates lively characters, he shares credible research and he tells a fantastic story. Hillbilly Elegy deserves to be an “it” memoir for more than political reasons, so no matter what place you occupy on the political spectrum, you might enjoy it.