Narrated by the author this memoir is a heartfelt journey of a man through the labyrinth of his own life and culture. It reminded me a little of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. What a child grows up with is intrinsic and woven through their personality and psyche. To the child it just is. But when as an adult that person gains a curiosity to look back and step back far enough to gain an objective understanding of the effects those growing years had on them, it is powerful indeed. Vance grew up as a “hillbilly”: a poor white person from the American south. But I loved what he says about that moniker: “Americans call them ‘hillbillies, white trash, rednecks’ but I call them ‘neighbours, friends, family.'”
Vance very poignantly and honestly tells his own story of growing up in white working class culture in the Appalachia region, and in so doing, describes a culture marked by economic decay, poor self-esteem, and lack of agency. He loves his family deeply, but was also scarred in many ways by them and had to wake up to this reality to begin to understand his own tendencies and motivations. He had good people in his life who fiercely protected him and loved him, like his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw– very vivid and colourful characters! Would I ever have loved to meet them! “If you harm that boy you will answer to the barrel of my gun!” says Mamaw to her own daughter about her grandson J.D. It made me think of the sitcom we grew up with called Beverly Hillbillies.
Vance doesn’t criticise, he analyses. Hard working Scots/Irish immigrants came for the American dream which became overshadowed by abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma. How that happened is complicated, and Vance very ably articulates his chaotic family story with humour and insight.
I’m getting to this book a bit late, but when it came out it was hugely instructive in understanding the populism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which sped it to the top of the bestseller list at the time. I do recommend listening to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself. Ron Howard has created a movie adaptation with a star-studded cast, coming out soon on Netflix.