Tag Archives: J.D. Vance
If you were a fan of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, then debut author Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a major role in raising Smarsh. The rundown of Betty’s life is sobering: her father was abusive and her mother had schizophrenia; she got pregnant at 16; and she racked up six divorces and countless addresses. This passage about her paycheck and diet jumped out at me:
Each month, after she paid the rent and utilities, and the landlady for watching Jeannie, Betty had $27 left. She budgeted some of it for cigarettes and gas. The rest went to groceries from the little store around the corner. The store sold frozen pot pies, five for a dollar. She’d buy twenty-five of them, beef and chicken flavor, and that would be her dinner all month. Every day, a candy bar for lunch at work and a frozen pot pie for dinner at home.
It’s a sad state of affairs when fatty processed foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and this is still the case today: the underprivileged are more likely to subsist on McDonald’s than on vegetables. Heartland is full of these kinds of contradictions. For instance, in the Reagan years the country shifted rightwards and working-class Catholics like Smarsh’s mother started voting Republican – in contravention of the traditional understanding that the Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. Smarsh followed her mother’s lead by casting her first-ever vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but her views changed in college when she learned how conservative fiscal policies keep people poor.
This isn’t a straightforward, chronological family story; it jumps through time and between characters. You might think of reading it as like joining Smarsh for an amble around the farm or a flip through a photograph album. Its vignettes are vivid, if sometimes hard to join into a cohesive story line in the mind. Some of the scenes that stood out to me were being pulled by truck through the snow on a canoe, helping Grandma Betty move into a house in Wichita but high-tailing it out of there when they realized it was infested by cockroaches, and the irony of winning a speech contest about drug addiction when her stepmother was hooked on opioids.
Heartland serves as a personal tour through some of the persistent trials of working-class life in the American Midwest: urbanization and the death of the family farm, an inability to afford health insurance and the threat of toxins encountered in the workplace, and the elusive dream of home ownership. Like Vance, Smarsh has escaped most of the worst possibilities through determination and education, so is able to bring an outsider’s clarity to the issues. At times she has a tendency to harp on the same points, though, adding in generalizations about the effects of poverty rather than just letting her family’s stories speak for themselves.
The oddest thing about Smarsh’s memoir – and I am certainly not the first reviewer to mention this since the book’s U.S. release in September – is who it’s directed to: her never-to-be-born daughter, “August”. Teen pregnancy was the family curse Smarsh was most desperate to avoid, and even now that she’s in her late thirties, a journalist and academic returned to Kansas after years on the East Coast, she remains childless. August is who Smarsh had in mind while working two or more jobs all through high school, earning higher degrees and buying her dream home. All along she was saving August from the hardships of a poor upbringing. While the unborn child is a potent symbol, it can be disorienting after pages of “I” to come across a “you” and have to readjust to who is being addressed.
Heartland is a striking book, not without its challenges to the reader, but one that I ultimately found rewarding to read in short bursts of 10 to 20 pages at a time. It’s worthwhile for anyone interested in what it’s really like to be poor in America.
A favorite passage:
“My life has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. A somewhat conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Home in the middle of the country and work on the East Coast. The physical world where I talk to people and the formless dimension where I talk to you.”
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth was published by Scribe UK on November 8th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.”
This is one of those books I’d heard high praise about from America but never thought I’d be able to get hold of in the UK. I looked into borrowing it from the public library on my last trip to the States, but even nearly a year after its publication the reservation list was still a mile long. So I was delighted to hear that Hillbilly Elegy was being released in paperback in the UK last month. For British readers, it will provide a welcome window onto a working-class world that is easily caricatured but harder to understand in a nuanced way.
J.D. Vance knows hillbilly America from the inside but also has the necessary distance to be able to draw helpful conclusions about it: born in the “Rust Belt” of Ohio to parents who didn’t complete high school, he served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and became a successful investor with a venture capital firm. He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t give into lower-middle-class despair and widespread vices like alcoholism and hard drugs, even though his mother was an addict and installed a “revolving door of father figures” in his life after his father abandoned them.
Vance attributes his success to the stability provided by his grandparents, his beloved Mamaw and Papaw. They were part of a large wave of migration from Kentucky to Ohio, where they moved so Papaw could work in the Armco Steel mill. Prejudice assaulted the couple from both sides: Kentucky folk thought they’d grown too big for their britches, while in Ohio they were maligned as dirty hillbillies. Mamaw, in particular, is a wonderful character so eccentric you couldn’t make her up, with her fierce love backed up by a pistol.
The book is powerful because it gives concrete, personal examples of social movements: it’s no dry history of how the Scots-Irish residents of Appalachia switched allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican after Richard Nixon, though Vance does fill in these broad brushstrokes, but a family memoir that situates Mamaw and Papaw’s experience, and later his own, in the context of the history of the region and the whole country.
I most appreciated the author’s determined use of the first-person plural, especially later in the book: he includes himself in the hillbilly “we” such that he’s not some newly gentrified snob denouncing welfare queens: he knows these people and this lifestyle and recognizes its contradictions; he also knows that but for the grace of God he could have slipped into the same bad habits.
Jackson [Kentucky] is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children but can’t find the time to support them. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work.
At Yale Law School Vance felt out of place for the first time in his life. One of the most important things he learned from professors like Amy Chua was the value of social capital: in his new world of lawyers, senators and judges it really was all about who you know. At law firm interviews, he had no idea what cutlery to use in restaurants and had to text his girlfriend for help. For as much as he’s adapted to non-hillbilly life in the intervening years, he still notices in himself the hallmarks of a stressful, impoverished upbringing: a fight or flight approach to conflict and an honor culture that makes him prone to nurturing feuds.
Although I enjoyed it simply as a memoir, I can see this book especially appealing to people who are interested in the politics and psychology of the lower middle class (perhaps an American equivalent to Owen Jones’s Chavs, a book I never got through). British readers will, I think, be surprised to learn that Vance is on the conservative end of the spectrum and has political aspirations. Essentially, he doesn’t think the government can fix things for struggling country folk, though certain social policies might help. He seems to think it’s more a question of personal responsibility – and also that churches have a major role to play.
There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.
Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.
(These strike me as alien ideas in the UK, apart from short-lived strategies like David Cameron’s “Big Society” – except, perhaps, if one goes all the way back to Thatcherism.)
Much has been made in the British press about this book’s ability to explain the rise of Donald Trump. This is an overstatement, and perhaps even misleading, when you consider the author’s conservatism; he never mentions Trump, and never engages in any specific political discussions. But what it is helpful for is exposing a mindset of rugged, defiant individualism that often shades into hopelessness. I have my own share of redneck relatives, and though I feel far removed from the world Vance depicts, I can see its traces in my family tree. I’m glad he had the guts to draw on his experience and write this hard-hitting book.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis was first published in the UK by William Collins in September 2016. My thanks to Katherine Patrick for sending a free paperback for review.
Note: Ron Howard is to direct and produce a movie version of the book.