A Hillbilly Halfbreed’s Book Review
September 4, 2016 § 1 Comment
The Book’s Impact on Me
Yesterday I finished reading Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. Vance is a Republican and his conservative views evoked some resistance from me, but his honesty and intelligence won me over. More important, his book caused me to realize the similarity of his characters and their attitudes to some of my own. He caused me to reframe my perception of my life. That is rare experience for someone my age. I’ve read lots of books, but few of them have changed my self perception. Usually, I chose books that reinforced and added support for perceptions I had adopted long ago. Much of my reading was fiction that entertained me. Vance hit a nerve rarely accessed.
Hillbilly Elegy is about a subculture of white people who migrated from Kentucky to Ohio to work in the factories and mills located there. It is also about what happened to those migrants when the factories closed and left them without a job, living in various forms of poverty. It is not an economic or political analysis. Vance makes a persuasive argument that the way those castaways from capitalism reacted to their plight had more to do with their cultural ethos than with the nature of the political and economic failures that led to their problems. He does not blame them but he describes influences in their cultural backgrounds to contend their reactions were both predictable and understandable.
Vance’s childhood was an unstable nightmare. His mother married and had children, Vance and an older sister, when she was a teenager. Her life was a procession of five or six marriages, to wildly varying types of men, interspersed with multiple extramarital affairs that added to the chaos of her own life and the lives of her children. The source of love and stability in Vance’s childhood were his grandparents, entitled Mamaw and Papaw. Mamaw was a foul mouthed woman who taught Vance to react violently to any real or supposed insult, either directed at him or his mother or sister. This resulted in a long series of fist fights beginning when he was four or five years old. His grandfather was also a violent man who carried a pistol and wrecked a department store when a clerk had, in Papaw’s opinion, verbally abused Vance when he was about six or seven years old.
These less than ideal grandparents loved Vance unconditionally and enabled him to survive his mother’s failure to care for him. His school career was affected by repeated moves from school to school. The stress of his life affected his ability to concentrate on his studies and he was barely able to graduate from high school.
After his graduation, Vance enlisted in the Marine Corps, a decision which changed the arc of his life. In the Corps he learned self discipline, self respect and some basics of successful maneuvering through life as an adult. That experience and the guidance of his grand parents undoubtedly saved Vance from a tragically wasted life.
After four years in the Marine Corps, Vance used the GI Bill to gain a degree from Ohio University, where he graduated cum laude. With help from some supportive faculty members, he was admitted to Yale University where he obtained a Law degree and met the woman he later married.
As Vance’s book relates the events of his own life, he describes the lives of his relatives and some of his neighbors. Some of these people migrated from Kentucky and some remained in Kentucky. Vance offers insights into their behavior to show that, whether they remained in Kentucky or migrated to Ohio, they retained the cultural ideas of Kentucky: Pessimism, fierce defensiveness toward the “elite” class (i.e. those with college eductions, members of professions, lawyers, doctors and accountants), politicians (whom they regarded as liars and thieves), the government (which they distrusted and regarded as the enemy), prone to adages featuring phrases like “too big for his britches”. They blamed other, invincible forces for their own failures. They did not believe that, if you worked hard and persisted, you could succeed. They felt that violence was required of anyone who was insulted or whose womenfolk were insulted. They carried weapons.
Vance believes that this subculture of white men is the core of Donald Trump’s political appeal. He argues that Trump mere expresses the non-intellectual way these Trump voters think. They feel that, at last, they have a political champion they can understand and support. They buy into every one of his fairy tale promises and revel in his harsh attacks on all basic institutions of our society and government.
Vance disagrees with these ideas because his education and intelligence plainly inform his judgment. But he contends that politically liberal approaches to changing these beliefs and attitudes are too much based on governmental and legal changes and not enough based on respecting their deep cultural roots.
My Halfbreed Hillbilly Reaction
I am eighty-five years old. I spent my first six or seven years in Utopia, Texas, a misnamed small village in the Texas Hill Country. There was no electricity. No indoor plumbing. Most of our food was home grown in mother’s garden supplemented by home raised chickens and squirrels shot by my father with a 22 pump rifle. My sole companion, except for rare visits by my sister’s son, my nephew, who was less than two years younger than I, was a gentle Collie dog and an assortment of kid goats and lambs who were not recognized by their nannies and ewes.
My father worked every day in the fields and the pasture, so I was raised by my mother. My mother was a former school teacher, devout Methodist, strict, but not harsh, disciplinarian, who loved me with absolute devotion. My aunts, who lived in the Rio Grande Vally, 250 miles away, were public school teachers. They sent us primers and other school books when a new edition caused their copies to be discarded. I learned to read before I began public school. At night, by lamp light, my father would read the funnies to me from the San Antonio Express until he would fall asleep.
As I read Vance’s book, I realized that my family represented two different models of his sub-culture. My mother was from Alabama. Her family moved to the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas in 1909. They became teachers in Mexican villages scattered along the Rio Bravo (the Mexican name for the Rio Grande River). My grandfather helped to build and establish the first Methodist church in the Valley. All members attended church regularly as long as they lived. My mother never drank or smoked. I never heard her utter a curse word and she (unsuccessfully ) tried to teach me to follow her example.
My father contrasted significantly from my mother and her family. He rarely attended the Methodist church nor did he attend any church regularly. He did not drink because his father had been an abusive alcoholic and my father was determined not to follow that path. He and his family were from Kentucky. They moved from a small town to Cynthiana Kentucky when he was a young man. His mother managed a hotel there.
My father had wide white scars across his chest, the result of having been knifed by an outraged man whom my father assaulted because he was striking his wife on a street in Cynthiana. My father did not curse but he was a loud, coarse man with a sense of humor that regularly offended my mother.
My father was a resourceful, but uneducated man. After his mother died, he, his brother and his father moved to western Oklahoma were they homesteaded 640 acres of land. As my father put it: “The government bet you 50 dollars you couldn’t survive on the land for a year. If you did, it belonged to you.” My dad not only survived, he established a friendship with a local banker who loaned him the money to go around the county and obtain agreements to buy broomcorn crops before they matured. If, when the crop was sold, it netted more than the price agreed with dad, he and the banker made a profit.
With that as a beginning, in the 1920’s , my father became an upper middle class success. He lived in a boarding house in Liberal Kansas while bedding the manager, whom he did not marry. He was enjoying bachelorhood too much to marry.
Some time about 1929 or thirty, dad moved to Mission, Texas, where he bought some citrus grove acreage. He married for the first time and the marriage did not last more than about a month, when his bride left with all the furniture and kitchen utensils. When he went to a store in Mission to buy some replacements, he met my mother, who at that time was working as a clerk, they soon married and, at age 54, married to my then 45-year-old mother, my father found himself the astonished father of a baby, me. The stock market crash occurred soon thereafter, my parents lost almost everything dad owned and ended up in Utopia, where they survived the depression the only way my dad knew: They owned a small ranch and he did all the work, helped by my mother. It was a way to survive without cash.
So, as I read Vance’s description of people from Kentucky, I recognized some of the qualities of my father, but not of my mother. As my old maid aunt often observed, “Those two are the most mismatched couple I ever saw.” Which makes me a Hillbilly Halfbreed.
As I look back at my own life, I see that the alcoholism in my dad’s family skipped a generation and landed on me. The anger, jaundiced attitude toward the rich, the other failings as a husband and father and a few decades trying to make amends for them – I recognized myself in many of Vance’s description of Kentucky hillbillies. The truth is that I inherited my shame from my mother and some of the things for which I was justifiably ashamed from my father. My father was a hillbilly who survived and, until the depression occurred, prospered. My mother was a religious, strong person who, in some ways resembled Mamaw in her unyielding disapproval of all kinds of misbehavior and her unconditional love for me. She would have certainly disapproved of Mamaw’s verbal habits.
I recommend the book.