Tag Archives: Kentucky

“Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

Pages:  272

Published:  June 28th, 2016

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir and Autobiography;  New York Times #1 Bestseller; Named by The Times as “One of six books to help understand Trump’s win”

Format:  E-book

 

This is a memoir from the point of view of a “hillbilly”  growing up in the Rust Belt of America.  He is an anomaly of sorts in that he was able to escape the circumstances of  his past and become such a success story.  His mother was an addict and abusive.  He, as a child, was a victim of her abuse.  She had a rotation of husbands and boyfriends continuously entering and leaving their lives.  Despite this, he was able to move on.  After high school, he joined the marines and served in Iraq.  Then, he went on to Ohio State and Yale Law School.  His story drew me in right away.  He tells his story through this lens:  “…for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

He tells his own life story alongside statistics and study data of the area, its people and culture at large.  I found this a fascinating read from a voice in a corner of the world we do not often hear from.  It provides certain insights and offers plenty of discussion points.  It is incredible that he had the resilience of character combined with the alignment of certain factors that gave him the will and drive to succeed as he did.  He comes across with great humility attributing his success to these factors that did align in the right way for him.  He could have just as easily, perhaps more easily fallen into a life of addiction and poverty.

Mamaw is a crucial supporter for J.D. Vance and a relentless voice encouraging him to be more, to think bigger for himself.  Mamaw and Papaw had moved to Ohio for factory jobs from southeastern Kentucky alongside so many others.  There is a reference to Dwight Yokam’s song “Reading, Rightin’, Rt. 23” and how relatable this was to Mamaw as well as much of Appalachia at that time.  When J.D.’s mother and aunt were growing up, Papaw was an alcoholic and the relationship between the parents was stormy, even violent at times.  Mamaw eventually kicked Papaw out and becomes a guiding force and bright light for J.D. as well as for many other of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, even though this stability was not provided for her own children. Papaw serves as her sidekick, still living in his separate house, sober now.

There is a fair amount of discussion within the book about how Appalachia and the South went from firmly Democratic to firmly Republican in less than a generation.   According to this book, there was a perceived unfairness to unemployment checks, whereby those not working would seem to actually have more luxuries, like cell phones, than those who were working hard.  Also, in the realm of housing, people could live in Section 8 housing with help from the government and be neighbors to others who are paying their full share.  Obama was apparantly unpalatable to the hillbilly people because he was so educated and spoke so differently from them.  They did not feel they could relate to him.  Oh, and maybe there was some racism involved too (but this point was strangely mentioned almost as an afterthought.)  This is a class of people, strongly united in their identity, but left feeling hopeless and disenfranchised with the loss of industry where they were previously employed.

This culture of blue collar worker with their tight knit community has higher than average levels of drug and alcohol dependence, divorce, and poverty.  The children of this community are less likely to go on to college.  The men are more likely not to work.  Those that do go off to college are unlikely to come back to their home towns.  Thus, there occurs a  phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.”  This cycle is self perpetuating and reinforcing.  It is “a culture of social decay” as J.D. Vance puts it.  There is also a “learned helplessness, ” in other words, a feeling that there is nothing these people can do to change their own circumstances.

Politically, this book is very interesting.  J.D. Vance blames the hillbilly culture for their own situation.  He believes in hard work and personal responsibility despite hardships.  His views are very conservative.

J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist in Ohio hoping to give back to the community he came from.  I will be very interested in seeing how he does give back, especially after painting such a bleak outlook for the potentiality of a solution to the problems faced by these people.  He does say that the one thing he’d most like to change about the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.”  With his law background, it will be interesting to see if he decides to jump into politics at some point.  He certainly seems interested in public policy, although skeptical of the magic bandaid.  This is an interesting, thought provoking book providing insight into a region, a class of people, as well as a pivotal period in history.

J.D. & Mamaw                               J.D. Vance

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Do you feel that you learned more about the culture of Appalacia through this novel?  Do you feel it was accurately portrayed?  Why might some people in Appalacia take issue with this novel?
  2. Discuss the guiding forces in J.D. Vance’s life that allowed him to succeed.  Discuss the role of the military in shaping his perspective and work ethic.
  3. Discuss the psychological effects of J.D.’s background on his current personal life.
  4. Why is social capital important?  How does this change for the author through his life?
  5. How would you describe J.D. Vance’s political views?  If he were a politician, who policy changes would he lobby for?
  6. Explain this “learned helplessness” that J.D. Vance talks about.
  7. Why would Donald Trump as a presidential candidate appeal to this group of people?  What do you think they hope from him?
  8. Discuss Vance’s feeling of dislocation upon graduating from Yale. How does he come to terms with them or does he?
  9. Towards the end of the book, Vance asks himself, “How much is Mom’s life her own fault?  Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”  What are your thoughts?
  10. Do you think this book would have received so much attention had it not been an election year?  … had Trump not been a candidate?
  11. What does this book say about the American Dream?  Where and for whom is this dream alive?  Where has it died?
  12. Did you feel that that J.D. Vance was blaming the victim as many of his critics have complained?

 

 

Review by Jennifer Senior in the NY Times

Review by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker

Discussion Questions by LitLovers

Ron Dreher’s interview with J.D. Vance in The American Conservative

 

 

 

“The Animators” by Kayla Rae Whitaker

Pages:  384

Expected Publication Date:  January 31, 2017

 

 

 

 

Breathtaking, stunning debut novel!  It is amazing!  It is tragic, heartfelt, tender and brazen all at the same time.  I absolutely loved this!  I loved the journey it took me on.  I loved that I had no idea where this book was headed, but went along for a wild ride that had me laughing and crying.  There were so many areas of gray and missing pieces of information that I was itching to learn more about along the journey. These holes were so often filled in just when you thought you might not get the answers.  However, the missing pieces weren’t ever what was expected, never cliched.  This book is filled with tragedy, horrors, sadness, but also with redemption, hope and love.

The novel begins in art class with Mel and Sharon, two young women not quite fitting the usual mold at the upstate college they attend.  They are poorer, have experienced more hurt and pain, and seem to have no one.  That is, until they find each other.  They bond over old cartoons including Dirty DuckRen and StimpyClutch CargoFritz the Cat, and Heavy Traffic.  They begin working together at school and after graduation spending long days and nights working on their first movie together based on Mel’s mother, who was a drug-addicted prostitute.  They are both artists who have triangulated their futures together through their art.  Ten years later they are experiencing the success of their first film.  Mel is bold, confident, the life of the party.  Sharon is reserved, holding back, the more practical of the two.  Together they have become a great team.  They are best friends and work partners.  However, their friendship is tested by addiction, jealousy, and medical illness.

It is through their friendship with each other that they begin to rebuild themselves.  “She was the first person to see me as I had always wanted to be seen.  It was enough to indebt me to her forever.”  Their relationship is close, nurturing, subject to role reversals and also anger.

It is through their art that they come to terms with their pasts, redeeming themselves through a process of catharsis. Kayla Rae Whitaker beautifully describes how much they pour themselves into their work, how it is transformative, healing, and full of love.  It changes the way they feel about themselves, their childhoods, and it Sharon’s case it changes her relationship with her mother.

I loved the writing, the build-up of tensions, the breaking down of tensions.  I loved the power of the encounters between Sharon and her family.  It is amazing how much was conveyed with so little said, how tone and inaction spoke so loudly between them.  The characters are so vividly and fully developed, the relationships incredibly dynamic, and the storyline itself is unique, bold and exhilarating.

This book is incredible.  It has so much depth, energy, grit.  I highly recommend this to everyone!  This will make an excellent book club choice.  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is art to Mel and Sharon?  What does it symbolize?
  2. Discuss Mel’s reaction to her mother’s death.  Do you think she feels guilty at all for creating a movie about her mother?
  3. Discuss the role of drugs and alcohol in this novel.  Who are the addicts and why?
  4. Why did Sharon keep her list a secret from Mel?
  5. Why do you think Teddy features so prominantly in Sharon’s list?  Is it because he was her first friend or because he showed her his father’s pictures?
  6. What do you think it is between Sharon and Teddy that brings them together romantically when she finds him in Louisville?
  7. Why is Teddy so upset that he is portrayed in Sharon’s movie?  Is this rational?
  8. Mel begins losing weight and drinking heavily leading up to her accidental death by overdose.  Why was she so depressed?
  9. Discuss the tension between Sharon and her mother.  How does it finally begin to ease and why?
  10. How do you think this last project that Mel had started and Sharon finally starts to put together will come together?  How do you predict the progression of the story?
  11. Was Mel in love with Sharon?

Kayla Rae Whitaker’s website

An Interview with Kayla Rae Whitaker

Fellow Blogger, Simon McDonald’s Review