In 1996, Hillary Clinton published the first edition of “It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us.”
Clinton argued that a global economy, new technologies, disrupted local economies and media-driven cultural change were straining the bonds of family life. The result, she asserted, was that children were poorer physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.
In arguing the importance of adult support for children, Clinton gathered examples from social scientists’ findings and experiences of ordinary citizens.
Twenty years later, J. D. Vance, another Yale Law School graduate, has published a book about a community much smaller than Clinton’s village. In “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” Vance examines his own life in the context of his immediate and extended families in Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio.
Working- and middle-class families in Middletown, where Vance spent most of his life through high school, depended on Aramco Steel for steady incomes. Since before Vance was born, however, the plant struggled in an increasingly global economy. Aramco was rescued by a merger with Kawasaki.
Vance’s immediate family includes Lindsay, his older sister, and Mom, a nurse addicted to prescription drugs and to attracting, marrying and divorcing a series of men, usually following one or more fights that traumatized Vance, his sister and their neighbors.
In addition to support from Lindsay, Vance depended on Mamaw, a pistol-packing grandmother from Mom’s side of the family. Mamaw lived next door and offered him escape, support, advice, unconditional love and necessities.
It was Mamaw who insisted Vance study. Mamaw pushed him to take a job bagging groceries. When police arrested Mom and Vance feared children’s services would place him with foster parents, he lived with Mamaw. She counseled him against joining the Marine Corps following high school, but then wrote him every day he was away.
Vance considers joining the Marines his best “life” decision. The Corps tested him, disciplined him, gave him leadership responsibilities. Taking from Mamaw, the Marines convinced Vance he could handle anything including a grueling schedule at Ohio State followed by life among privileged at Yale Law School.
Vance says he decided to write “Hillbilly Elegy” because two questions bothered him from his first days at Yale: “Why does this elite institution seem so culturally foreign?” And relatedly, why are so few kids who grow up the way I did — ‘disadvantaged,’ to use the vocabulary of the day — making it to our society’s elite institutions?”
Vance gives readers a moving narrative to follow, from surviving a dysfunctional family in failing Appalachian towns and rescue by Mamaw and the Marine Corps to becoming a “Yale Law Review” editor married to a classmate who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts.
Whether this narrative answers Vance’s questions seems debatable. Although he understood the importance of his success at Yale, Vance must rely on child development theories to contextualize the debilitating effects of poverty isolated in geographical pockets from which examples of wealth, education and accompanying success are nonexistent.
“Hillbilly Elegy ”— which Cannon Beach Reads participants will discuss, Wednesday, March 20, at 7 p.m.—is available at the library. Marjorie MacQueen also has acquisitioned several other nonfiction titles about related social issues, including “One Person, One Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy” by Carol Anderson; “American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment” by Shane Bauer; “Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society” by Thomas Frank and “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist “ by Eli Saslow.
Ten local authors will read their poems, essays and stories in “A Celebration of Life on the North Coast,” a presentation of the Northwest Authors Series. Authors presenting their work include Karja Biesanz, Jon Ciminello, James Dott, Mindy Hardwick, Geno Leech, Jennifer Nightingale, Robert Pyle, Emily Ransdell, Debbie Simorte and Victoria Stoppiello. The reading, free and open to the public, begins at 7 p.m., Friday, March 1, at the library, 131 N. Hemlock. Refreshments will be served.