My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Two people in two weeks urged me to read this, ostensibly to help me understand how an entire demographic could vote against its own interests, and maybe how the horror of 2016 could have come about. It accomplished neither. There’s a story here that is hard and not hard to relate to. On the one hand, as I am not from Appalachia (or where the transplants landed) I will never understand that which is Appalachia, that which Vance describes.
This may well be true, but on the other hand, I grew up in a similar small town in Connecticut… It really wasn’t until I left that I realized how close to the poverty line we lived; hand-me-downs, hand-made clothes, Spam as a main dish… And I married someone whose family came from Kentucky (and where grew up quite close to Vance’s Middletown, Ohio). I recall visiting relatives in Ocala in the late 1960s who still had an outhouse. And I know well the “Mamaw” and “Papaw” grandparents of Vance, though my wife’s did not use the colorful language of Vance’s Mamaw.
Where it is hard to relate is that I have never understood the provincial mindset, the allegiance to “roots”. I have never understood regional loyalties, the “Southern way”, hollers or kin. Once I left Connecticut, I had no intention of going back. The limits were suffocating, though I only felt them after I left, when I realized there was a much bigger world than our 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica (I have no idea how much debt my parents incurred to give us that incredible resource) shared with me.
So, this book paints a picture. A specific autobiographical picture, which should not be construed as indicative of all “hillbillies”, but with commonalities too many can identify with. It did not explain to me why the people described would vote for people who are clearly intuitively obvious to the most casual observer not representing them. The distinct lack of critical thinking does not mean lack of intelligence. But Vance himself notes how people refuse to believe the truth, or worse, believe untruths despite being shown the truth, and I can’t abide willful ignorance.
Maybe this was too close for comfort. Too real. Memories of a distanced family. Memories of a small town life consciously, and with deliberate intent, left behind long ago. But I have always held that it is a moral imperative to improve oneself – if not one’s lot in life, then at least intellectually – in spite of one’s environment. Vance made something of himself. This is good. But he admits to heroes that tells me he stopped short.