Somehow, fate was on our side as we had the opportunity to meet J.D. Vance at a book signing a week before our book club meeting date! Coincidentally it was also my birthday, so how could I not be excited :). His visit encouraged us to at least read a few pages (if not the whole book) beforehand. It was a packed house for the event, as Vance’s hometown of Middletown, Ohio was a short distance away. He read a few excerpts from his novel, namely the episode with Mamaw and Papaw at the pharmacy with the expensive toy in addition to his first networking dinner up at Yale and not knowing proper etiquette let alone what types of wine and seltzer water there were! Following his readings, the majority of the remaining time was a Q&A with the audience members.
What was discussed here in addition to our book club shortly after focused around this idea of the American Dream and class – regardless if it is among Appalachia or other geographical locations. Vance spoke to how the change of his grandparents to a slightly better class was not like flipping a switch – there are still tendencies that are reflected in where we have come from. Even moving through classes can make us feel like a fraud in both our new environment (as there is discomfort and discoveries frequently) as well as original (being exposed to more and returning home, not sure to revert back to old ways or bring in what has been learned). Somehow, we aren’t a part of any of those worlds anymore as we have, in a way, transcended our class – “there was no greater disloyalty than betraying your class” (Vance 15). It is our charge to assimilate without looking out of place – which J.D. encountered quickly both when returning from the Marines to OSU and then on to Yale. However, there was this push by Vance for those who are lucky enough to get out of these towns and become more talented and educated citizens, the community needs them to come back and help build community there. This could help the ‘outside world’ see the stories beyond the statistical data that define these towns. Ironically, Vance lives in San Francisco….
A timely visit, Vance spoke of the recent presidential election. Regardless of party and political affiliation, this election (and his memoir) sheds light on the cultural divide as well as the lack of agency and reaction for lower class blue collar workers. The solution seems to be that every new administration tears up the playbook every 8 years and starts over – not leading to a whole lot of progress. Hillbilly Elegy allows us to ask better questions. Now in our book club we talked quite a bit about how this story is not the epitome of hillbilly life – there is a bigger picture of white low SES people. Some schools are considering this work their summer reading for pre-college. This gave us pause as we were nervous that these stories may tokenize those who live in this type of environment and also cause those not familiar to believe they know everything about that culture now – placing the former into boxes.
The big question that made me emotional thinking about was the affect our family and lineage has on us. Vance and his sister Lindsay’s lives were called “adverse childhood experiences…traumatic childhood events, and their consequences reach far into adulthood. The trauma need not be physical” (Vance 226). That was a harsh reality for some of us (myself included) that we know that these experiences lead into how we approach the world today – for me in how I handle my romantic relationships and even though I know I have been affected, I still am unable to escape it, similar to J.D. with Usha.
Probably one of the best discussions we have had since our club’s infancy 7 months ago. This narrative hit home for a couple of us and opened the eyes of others. Here’s to our next book club selection, Before the Fall by Noah Hawley!
What were your thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy?