‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and the faith & work movement

91epx6odutlHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis  has been read and reviewed in countless outlets from Barnes and Noble to Hearts and Minds Books and the New York Times.  There’s a reason why. It’s a well-written memoir describing the circumstances, deep challenges, victories, and struggles of a culture in crisis.

This culture has been neglected in popular media until recently, and I’m grateful for the spotlight this book shines on Appalachia and on the working class. Vance was raised in a rural part of Kentucky. His family moved to southwestern Ohio during his childhood with many other families responding to opportunities for work at AK Steel. The move to Middletown, Ohio and the subsequent work and income was a great thing for many, but unfortunately it created a bubble that subsequently burst.

Vance’s description of his upbringing is compelling and well worth the price of admission on its own. His life after high school paints a picture of someone who was able to rise above his native culture, exceeding expectations to graduate summa cum laude from The Ohio State University and Yale Law School as well as serve his country in the Marine Corps.

As I read the book, I was drawn to the author’s honesty and vulnerability, from the very first page’s seeming absurdity of a 31-year-old writing a memoir:

My name is J.D. Vance and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it.

Vance actually has quite sufficient wisdom to merit a reader’s purchase and reading of this book. David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist, says “[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.” Rod Dreher, columnist at The American Conservative and author of the forthcoming The Benedict Option, says, “[A]n American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read…the most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance.”

But I was also drawn to the book for personal reasons. My father and mother were born and raised in West Virginia, my father in a very rural section of the state similar to where the author is from. While my father was raised in the 1950s-60s, he was able to see things in the book that reminded him of the area where he was raised and where I have visited so many times.

I contacted one of my cousins (my father’s sister’s son) as I wrote this review to seek his reaction. He was raised in a small, southern Ohio town and today lives nearby with his family. He is closer in age to the author than my father is, and therefore I was curious to get his feedback.

While my cousin resonated with the book, he did have some pushback. He had three overarching observations on the book:

  • First, Vance appears to paint all of Appalachia with the same brush. While we don’t discount Vance’s experience, not every village or holler is the same.
  • Second, while there are people there who don’t want to work and are lazy, not everyone is this way. There are many honest, hardworking people in Appalachia who are simply trying to make ends meet and provide for their families.
  • Finally, there are many positive aspects to life in Appalachia such as community, loyalty, and the value of hard work that Vance does not cover. He focuses on the negative aspects of life nearly exclusively.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently published an interview of Vance by Cleveland.com chief political reporter Henry Gomez, reporting that Vance has recently announced his plan to form a non-profit called Our Ohio Renewal. The organization’s mission is to “seek solutions to the challenges facing the working class;” Vance plans to relocate from San Francisco to either Cincinnati or Columbus to work with the non-profit. My cousin was glad to hear about this and feels that any individual or organization doing work on behalf of, or providing a spotlight on, the working class with a view toward its flourishing is a good thing.

So, what does Hillbilly Elegy have to do with the history and future of the faith and work movement? First, the book underscores the need to understand different audiences and demographics. At the Faith @ Work Summit this fall, David Gill emphasized  the need for this movement to expand to new audiences including blue collar workers (you can read his analysis here and here). Books like Hillbilly Elegy serve to educate us.

Second, I believe the book gives us a glimpse of how formation can prepare someone to live into their vocation regardless of occupation. Vance’s upbringing, while definitely challenging and difficult, gave him an appreciation for inherent human dignity, the value of all work regardless of it being “sacred” or “secular,” and the importance of value of social capital. Ohio native Bob Trube said in a review of Hillbilly Elegy:

Vance’s book actually gives us hope. Truth was, he didn’t need a lot of social capital to make the difference. A tough old grandmother who provided stability and structure and expectations that he could make something of himself was enough, at least to get him on the right course. That may seem over-simplistic. And it won’t help everyone. It didn’t help Vance’s mother, but it makes the point that the critical capital in any community is not the capital poured in by public and private means, but the capital of the people who live there and whether they have the spiritual resources of hope to believe their own choices matter.

I heartily recommend that you read this book. You can buy it from Hearts and Minds Books here or any other venues where books are sold.

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