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J.D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) And Rick Bragg (Somebody Told Me) Deserve Space On Your Bookshelves

May 12, 2018

Many years ago at Borders Bookstore on University Avenue in Madison I met one of my favorite authors.  Rick Bragg was a writer for The New York Times, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, and was able to convey stories about the South in a way my Grandma, who had picked cotton the old fashioned way, might have told them.  After having a chance to talk for a couple of minutes with Bragg he signed my book with his own view, “For Gregory, Who may be kin, Rick Bragg”.

At about page 20 at I started Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance I thought of Bragg and his simply beautiful book All Over But The Shoutin’ which is also about a family in northeastern Alabama on the very edge of the cliff and striving to maintain some sense of the world.

Bragg wrote that book in 1997, and as I read Vance’s writing I reflected that perhaps the angst that came bursting out in 2016’s election had been just as powerfully written decades before.

There is no way not be moved at times to anger with the book, or burst into laughter on other pages as the comic timing of Vance is perfect.  There are also many pages where all that can be done is to read soberly while attempting to place the story in line with our times.   I admit to thinking, before opening the first page, the book was going to try and spin why the white underclass were so maligned.  But by the time the book hit its stride I was agreeing with much which was written concerning overall themes.

The politics of rebellion which has had many consequences–many which I consider to be dangerous–was for me summed up just about perfectly on page 147.  Many cry out, Vance writes, about the virtues of hard work but then fail to seek jobs, or once obtaining one “take five thirty-minute restroom breaks”.    Talking about how “Obama shut down the coal plants’ or ‘how all the jobs went to China’ is just not being honest about why many whites find themselves where they currently reside in our economy..

Though the family in the book is able to move and even have what most would call a middle-class life there is still the behavior which is simply unacceptable to modern society.  To be blunt they made more money, had nicer cars but still brought their hillbilly gun toting, violent, verbal abusing, and spousal abusing ways with them.   It is, Vance writes, that culture itself which is more a problem than the economic insecurity.

But it is Vance’s grand story-telling which makes this book so thoroughly engaging. Every single page was a joy–and some paragraphs I read over and over–as I loved how he easily built up to a most witty conclusion.   Writing as he does is not easy—and it was a pure joy to see it come together so successfully.

The bottom line take away for me from the book is something that gets posted about often on CP.  Vance may not agree but poverty, though it may have a cultural component, is largely a structural problem, one the government can and must play a role in fixing.

Where Vance and I would very much agree is that educations matters.

And Rick Bragg would also concur.

One Comment
  1. Palmer permalink
    May 13, 2018 2:53 PM

    You are right. Read when it came out and it was written with comic time and thought.

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