Have you heard people talking about the Hillbilly Elegy? The Economist says, “You will not read a more important book about America this year.” It is being recommended to help understand our nation’s divide and the recent political climate, and is being made into a movie!
I am currently reading the book, even though I am familiar with the communities described by the author, J.D. Vance. I have been surprised by two things while reading this: One, I know these people and scenarios. They are familiar. I can put names to the certain characters that appear in each scenario. I know a firey grandparent that believes any kind of personal education is the way to self-betterment, who also rails against the system that over-educates and under-utilizes young people. I can think of a number of families wrecked by alcohol and normalization of violence. I have had many friends who were raised by grandparents because their mom had them when she was somewhere between 15-22 and just wasn’t ready, and having a kid made it harder to be ready. All of these social factors impact education and job viability.
The social/working structure described in the Midwestern towns in this book reflects the ones I have observed in every Indiana town I have lived in. The author calls the region of these trends the “hillbilly highway” and describes the migration of “hill people” from… well, the hills of Appalachia to the growing suburban hubs of the Midwest. These hubs centered around steel factories and coal mines. My own family has always had at least one foot in the oil industry in some way, and my dad still works for an oil company. These hubs also started to close as production demand and value decreased. My dad was laid off at a company during the recession, and I can think of two other very close friends who also watched their dads deal with a career ending abruptly as a result of the changing economy. These lifestyle changes impact the entire household, and when someone loses a job and benefits and the regularity of a full time work schedule, there is definitely a disphoria that affects the individual who has lost that consistency.
I would like to clarify that I have never thought of the people I love and grew up with here in the midwest as hill people, but the hill people of J.D. Vance’s world draw many parallels with the people I love here in the rural Midwest, and considering all of these class factors helps to explain the world views of my family that, as a young, urban, liberal woman I have often struggled to accept.
I have been thinking a lot about the effect of growing up in a rural place (often conservative environments) and moving to an urban center, especially since that is exactly what I have done, but also because many people and art forms that are important to me have followed a similar trajectory. For example, at a festival I participated in last week, I was chatting with two friends and top-notch musicians about their background, and they revealed that each of them grew up in small, conservative towns. They are not angry at their red towns or bitter about their upbringing. They love and respect it, even as young men currently living in large metropolitan areas. They can identify those people that they love, even the ones who come off as being on “the wrong side.” They see and understand what that side is and why it exists, and what factors shaped those views. It helps that they both have anthropological perspectives attached to their view of these communities. Maybe that is the important thing, anyway, to just step back and take it all in, instead of passing broad judgements about who is right and wrong in an argument or debate. It also helps that their beloved art form, folk music, is a tradition born out of traditional roots and thriving in urban epicenters. In a way, genres like folk and blues thrive because they have followed the same trajectory that we as young rural transplants have made.
On the flip side, I have close friends who are endlessly furious at our little state of Indiana for voting the “wrong” way, introducing ludicrous bills restricting the rights of people who don’t look like the majority and the state leaders. I listen to their bitterness inactively, because I have spent years being angry and fighting and railing against my family, but I know that force and aggression don’t change minds, and I can finally see that these ideologies are not mindless acts of hate. I have seen my family change their minds- really, no one should be completely and forever stuck in their current point of view, and people who are informed and take note of their current reality will make informed decisions regarding their reality. For example, my mother recently evolved her view regarding education and access to resources surrounding birth control. She is religious, but is also the mother of two daughters. She has seen that even in a community that is very religious, many women become pregnant at a young age and don’t have an opportunity to become independent or manage their own life and income. She also knows that finally, for the first time, those unplanned pregnancies are decreasing, and women have control over the trajectory of their life. So she may not ethically agree with some of the more controversial aspects regarding access to birth control, but she believes that institutes like Planned Parenthood are providing a necessary service to women, and providing them with education at the very least. This evolution of opinion didn’t happen because I was angry and kept fighting with my family. These changes of opinion (and I have had many of my own) happen from a careful observation of how our society functions, and from noticing what works and what doesn’t.
This awareness of other people’s world views often manifests itself in the arts. Musicians exploring these themes in their own lives and work will often explore these elements using folk traditions. One example of this is “Michael Conway,” a song he written about the exploitation of rural people in need of work and money. As much as this strikes us as a white, blue-color, “hill people” problem, this affected different migrations in American history, and this song follows the life of an Irish-American immigrant name Michael Conway. The song calls the copper mining community of Butte, Montana the, “richest hell on Earth,” referencing a new perceived high standard of living, which was traded by unknowingly forfeiting good health and long life.
My next read? The Unsettlers, seemingly related, maybe even telling the reverse story. Why are the urbanites jumping off the grid?
Related: Summer Re-Reads