I’m a fiction person. You know that. Whether writing or reading, I love being caught up in the intricate details of the lives of characters in a novel, but I have less patience with real life characters in works of non-fiction. If there’s a lesson to be learned from someone’s life, just tell me what it is.
The introduction to Hillbilly Elegy does that. The author’s basic premise, stated up front, is that it’s their social culture, not the economy, that holds many poor people back. Vance, a self-avowed hillbilly who grew up in Appalachia, gives examples of friends and family who had good jobs and even better reason to keep them, but were simply too bored, too lazy, or too limited emotionally to show up for work every day. He argues that with no learned work ethic, they get jobs, lose jobs, stop looking for jobs, then blame others for their woes. Worse, they have the support of friends and family in this.
I nearly stopped there. Here was the book’s message. I’d gotten it.
Then came the rest of the book – the personal story of the author, who managed to escape thanks to strong grandparents, the marines, and mentor teachers.
So I read on, and some of it was slow. I skimmed a little. But there were gems – like the idea that the problem isn’t the schools, but the lives children live before and after school – that role models are too few – that things like social networking, crucial to upward mobility, are foreign to these cultures. And I did come to care, personally, for J.D. Vance.
Hillbilly Elegy could have been shorter (i.e., edited). But it presents a picture of life in depressed areas, a picture so un-PC that the media is too frightened to depict it. It’s about taking personal responsibility, taking ownership for one’s life.
One last thought. J.D. Vance did a stint in the Marines that was a turning point in his life. Makes me wonder whether there shouldn’t be mandatory military service for eighteen-year-olds in this country …