Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

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You may have heard of this book as it has been highlighted quite a bit.  I decided to see what the fuss was about as the back story sounded intriguing.

It is a biography.  Not of a star sportsman, businessman, politician, celebrity or any other type of ‘famous’ person but of a man born and brought up in Appalachia, USA.  Born in Kentucky, raised in rust belt Ohio who describes himself and his family as ‘hillbillies’.

It tells the story of JD Vance who came from a dysfunctional family whose mother and father split early, his mother going from one relationship to another and became addicted to various kinds of drugs.  His one area of stability came from his “Mamaw” and “Papaw” his maternal grandparents.  His Mamaw in particular appears to be a foul mouthed, gun toting hill-billy who did her best to provide JD with stability, work ethic and pushed him to succeed.

He eventually had a four year stint in the US Marines, serving in Iraq and managed to graduate from Ohio State University and Yale Law School and is now leading a Silicon Valley investment company.

The book is essentially his story of his background and how he eventually, with the help of some outstanding role models, dragged himself out of Appalachia to become a successful family man.

It is being touted as the book which explains why much of the white working class opted for Donald Trump in the US presidential election.  I’m not sure it does this, but it does paint a vivid picture of life for a ‘typical’ white working class ‘hillbilly’.

I found the book engaging and easy to read and a really interesting description of life in a part of America I do not know, but for me its strength lies in the parallels it draws with the similar strata of society on 21st century Britain.  Transfer the descriptions of the people, the difficulties, the massive negative transformations in society to my own part of post industrial South Yorkshire and the book could be a mirror image of the white working class of Britain.  Those who, in June 2016, overwhelmingly voted for Brexit.

The people in this book could just as well be members of my own family or members of the community I came from.  For Midtown Ohio read Dinnington, or Barnsley South Yorkshire or any number of towns across the industrial ruins of northern England.

As a teacher one line from the book really jumped out of me and speaks volumes for the limitations of government in addressing some of the issues families like this cause and the generational problems surrounding them.  I paraphrase but essentially children are sheep and teachers try to shepherd them in the right directions and towards the right choices to make something of themselves,  but however good the shepherds are they cannot get over the fact that the sheep are brought up by wolves! How true.

It’s a fascinating book which I highly recommend as it not only tells the story of the rust belt of America but the ex coal fields of South Yorkshire as well as many other parts of England ripped asunder by industrial decline.

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Wayne Chadburn

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