Tag Archives: Poverty

Review: Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy
By J.D. Vance
Harper Paperbacks, 9780062300553, (Paperback) May 2018, 288pp.

The Short of It:

An important read, even if you think you won’t be able to relate to it.

The Rest of It:

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis–that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. – Indiebound

I had been avoiding this book when it was selected by my book club. Truthfully, I wasn’t interested in it because I knew it would hit too close to home, and it did. I didn’t grow up in the same region as Vance but I could identify with nearly everything Vance encountered growing up: addiction, abuse, poverty, and having what seemed like no other options for living.

But I could also identify with a need to belong, a need to succeed and the well-meaning intentions of some of the folks around me. Vance tells his story with brutal honestly but his story is peppered with hope throughout, which makes this memoir a very interesting read about the long-term effects of class decline on future generations and it begs the question, how can we fix it?

The full impact of this memoir didn’t hit me until the last third of the book. That is when Vance gets to the point. The never-ending cycle of poverty for some, make it impossible for them to rise above it. How could they without the realization that there is more out there?  If the norm is poverty and abuse, and it’s all they see, what motivation exists to change their situation for the better?

I know some people will argue with that logic. That people have a choice and they choose to be poor but for many, they grew up that way. They were never shown or given the opportunity to live differently. Vance suggests that the people who manage to pull themselves out of this cycle are the ones who were introduced to something different. I agree. It’s the number one reason why I work with teens and the homeless. I had people in my life that showed me a different way and that made all the difference. I want to be that person to someone else.

Hillbilly Elegy is a powerful read and if you don’t want to read it or think you can’t relate to it in some way, try, because it’s important to know how other people live. For our society to flourish we need role models to show us a better way because no matter where you stand politically, brokenness is evident all around us if you look.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

Review: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle Book Cover

The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls
Simon & Schuster
January 2006
304pp

The Short of It:

At its core, The Glass Castle is a story of survival which will break your heart and leave you cheering.

The Rest of It:

As I get older, I find that books mean more to me. The messages contained within are not always easy to decipher, but The Glass Castle left me with a wonderful sense of peace.

Jeannette Walls could be my long-lost sister. She doesn’t know this, of course, but we share quite a few similarities and grew-up in very similar households. The Walls family lived the life of nomads. Rex and Rose Mary Walls were “creative” types. Their big dreams often outweighed the fact that the family hungry, without proper clothing and living in housing that was basically held together by band-aids. Add to this the fact that they had four children and you’ve got a bit of a mess on your hands.

After getting 3rd degree burns while trying to keep the house warm, Jeannette’s older sister Lori is given this little bit of knowledge by her mother:

What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.”

The resiliency expressed in that short statement is as refreshing as it is frustrating. Rex aspires to be an inventor and has high hopes and big ideas that never come to fruition. Rose Mary, is an artist and feels that working a regular job would interfere with her desire to paint. As obstacles overcome them, and alcoholism and depression come into play, they choose to flee instead of dealing with their particular situation.

When they are not running, they are dreaming of “a glass castle” where all is perfect and beautiful.

In between lapses of better judgment, there are moments of genuine affection. Quite a bit of it. It’s clear that Rex, loved his children very much. I also felt that Rose Mary had love for her children as well, but she was so wrapped-up in a false sense of happiness to really see the damage their lifestyle was causing on the family as a whole.

If these kids fell down, they had to pick themselves up. If they were hungry, they had to find their own food which often meant digging through trash cans. If they had a problem at school, they had to resolve it themselves. Yes, this created very independent kids who could stand on their own two feet, but at what cost? One wonders.

The book is basically a collection of stories told from Jeannette’s point of view and follows her from childhood into adulthood. Each section  is very brief, which is good because you will be frustrated by these parents and the living condition that these children are forced to endure.

I found it slightly episodic and repetitive. I would have liked a bit more of a  transition between the stories, but when I think back on my childhood, my memories are episodic as well so I didn’t let this little quibble interfere with my reading.

In case you’re interested, here are some similarities between Jeannette’s experience and my own. Pardon me for using her first name but I feel as if I know her personally:

  • We both had furniture that was unconventional. She had tables made out of empty spools and I had cinder block couches and shelves. No comfy reading chairs for me.
  • Major injuries were not always treated by a medical professional. I broke my leg when I was 9 and my Dad told me that a cast would make my leg weaker. Four years of adult ballet were necessary to correct my turn out.
  • Jeannette made her own set of braces out of rubber bands and a feminine hygiene products. My braces were made out of paperclips and rubber bands. Check out my profile pic, did they do the job?
  • Her father took their savings and spent it on drink. My father took my savings too. I’ve no idea what he spent it on but I believe Vegas was in the mix.
  • The Walls refused to be on welfare. My parents did the same, even though we went without food for as many as 5 days at a time.
  • Christmas was bunk. Kids were spoiled by materialistic extravagances. Rex and Rose Mary saved their kids from all that. Mine did too.

The list goes on. The only difference between her family and mine, is that I have no fond memories of my childhood. As frustrating as her situation must have been, she never seemed to lose hope and her father, in his own twisted way, tried to impress upon them the importance of imagination and forward thinking.

You’re probably wondering how such a book, with so many similarities to my own life could leave me with an overwhelming sense of peace. Well, we both managed to pull ourselves out of a very bad situation and we’re sane, functioning members of society. I believe that the individuals I came in contact with, inspired me to rise above my situation. I believe the same can be said for Jeannette and most of her siblings. You just never know which act of kindness will be remembered later.

This book has been around for quite some time but we just picked it for next year’s Freshman Common Reading book. I think professors will be able to work it into their curriculum no matter what their discipline, be it economics, family and consumer sciences, ethnic studies, gender studies, psychology, sociology, etc.

Source: Review copy provided by the publisher, via the Freshman Common Reading program at CSUN.