The loss of the American dream?

“What is going on in the United States?” Next to a suggestion that we move to New Zealand, this is the most frequent conversation starter this summer.

David Brooks suggests Hillbilly Elegy as ‘essential reading’ for people trying to understand some of the frustration in American society. It is a well written, compelling, personal narrative of the lives of the author’s white working class relatives and a culture which is unfamiliar to me – and important to understand. It is even a little hopeful.

Author J.D. Vance grew up among Scots-Irish hillbillies, on the poor side of the cultural divide, and has earned his place at the top of the economic pyramid. In Hillbilly Elegy he gives us a sometimes funny, human understanding of the lives of his friends and family and the culture which formed them. From Appalachia and the rust belt of Ohio to the Marines and Yale Law School, Vance has an unusual ability to look clearly at the people he loves (and hates), relate to their struggles and defeats – then tell their stories with acceptance.

Vance’s sometimes shattered family moves from the poverty of the coal mines of Appalachia to a middle class life in the manufacturing plants of Ohio. The step up the economic ladder did not entirely free his mother from a chaotic life – and her legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma. His hot-headed, steadfast grandmother “Mawmaw” is the home base in his journey.

Vance is now at a Silicon Valley investment firm. He concludes the book with a certain appreciation for the government programs which offered a ‘hand up’ along his journey from tuition assistance to support for his aging Mawmaw. He wistfully suggests that any amount of aid is not enough if people do not believe in themselves. Culture is difficult to change – and it is worth understanding.

*Note: I think this would be a good choice for a book group.

Goodreads rating for Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – 4.27. If you are a Goodreads member you can read this review.

Check out the ASE article on the Goodreads site.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, $16.70 for the hardcover, $12.57 for the Audible download.

True confessions… it is summer and a lovely time to walk, so I listened to Hillbilly Elegy instead of reading it. Vance narrates his own story – I recommend it.

nickel-and-dime, hillbilly elegyAfter Hillbilly Elegy, I went back to review a favorite book which offers similar cultural insights. I recommend Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Paperback) by Barbara Ehrenreich. 2011 Used hardcovers are available for the cost of shipping (~$3.99), plus a penny.

* Book groups can be really great and beyond the wine group. ASE has an article about guides to prompt interesting discussions.

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