Friday, 21 April 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - a classic in the making

Earlier this year I posted to my Facebook page ‘What were the Americans thinking when they elected this creature? Or didn't turn up en masse to vote against him?’

Of course I was referring to Donald Trump, the man who has behaved very badly in so many ways in his private life, the aggressive man who heaped outrageous statement upon outrageous statement during his public campaign, the man who appeared blithely ignorant of the duties of the Presidential role he coveted, yet was adored by so many of his countrymen and women. 

After reading Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance I think I now understand why. Millions of voters in vast swathes of America think Trump’s style of behaviour is okay because extreme behaviour, much worse than his, is their daily norm. They know no better. Trump is one of them, one of their tribe. Experiencing daily conflict in their own lives, they 'get' him. You feel that Vance too self-identifies with Trump's style, although Trump isn't mentioned in the book, published in the middle of 2016.

Vance is clearly intelligent and intuitive but I was impressed that such a powerful memoir could be so well written by someone just past his 30th birthday. He acknowledges large numbers of people providing helpful input to the manuscript, but his own insights into his cultural origins, his own life and himself are quite amazing for such a young man. He paints an indelible picture of place, although I had to get out my atlas to understand the locations of the towns and roads he mentioned.

Vance ventured into territory I would never dare to enter, as a  family history writer myself. My characters are all long dead and buried. He writes about his sister, his mother and other living relatives, providing very personal details of their lives. But you get the feeling, as you read, that they have given him explicit or implicit permission to reveal their lives, as if they understand and approve of the potential influence of his book on their wider society. 

When you contemplate how the lifestyles Vance describes can ever be improved or, dare I say it,  ‘fixed’, you can’t get past several fundamental ideas. The first is the transformative power of at least one stable, loving adult during your childhood. By the time Vance came into the world his maternal grandparents had matured enough to act as his ‘rock’, in their own extraordinary way. However they’d failed their own children and Vance’s mother spent her entire adult life looking for love in all the wrong places and finding consolation in chemicals. 

The second is the power of individual temperament. Siblings experiencing the same atrocious circumstances in a family will often handle them quite differently, so that some survive, like Vance’s Aunt Wee, and some go under, like Vance’s mother. The importance of ongoing outside help and support in adulthood became obvious in this book. The only members of Vance’s extended family who developed stable, happy marriages were those who married people from other places and other socio-economic groups, people who expected something different and better from the relationship patterns prevailing in the author’s family. Vance's Aunt Wee and his sister Lindsay found supportive partners and Vance himself married a San Francisco girl from a South Asian, Hindu family, a girl he met at Yale. 

The third is that knowledge is power. Poverty is portrayed as an engrained way of thinking and Vance's journey to Yale Law School and beyond is a case study in itself. Vance’s family were not shirkers and did not lack brain power but did not know how to work ‘the system’. At least his grandparents pressured him to take school seriously. He eventually saw that education and mentoring and the contacts he made as he reached adulthood created his pathway out to a calmer, better, happier life. 

The book reminded me of two other searing depictions of life in the underclasses of society, ‘Manchild in the Promised Land’ (Claude Brown writing about childhood as an African-American in Harlem, New York) and ‘Angela’s Ashes’ (Frank McCourt writing about his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland). I couldn’t help but think of this story translated to an Australian setting, where the most obvious disadvantaged cultural group would be our Aborigines. Vance's story of one man’s life has wide applicability. 

This book is a page-turner. I read it in one sitting. Hillbilly Elegy will surely become a classic.