Burned through Hillbilly Elegy in a few days. I thought he did a great job of making the time period relatively abstract and focused more on the demographic, cultural and social implications of growing up in Kentucky/Ohio. There were few period references – the war in Iraq (I’m assuming the second one, not the first). Just a few pop culture references.
The thing that struck me was how much I related to some of his stories. Not so much the family dysfunction (some of that) but mostly just what it’s like to grow up poor. I remember my dad taking me to McDonald’s for my birthday -which was a huge deal. The kind of food that my family ate growing up (not super healthy). Just generally the class distinctions between rich and poor.
My dad was enlisted military, there were 4 kids in my family – there was never any money for anything. We went to church every Sunday and the special treat after church was getting donuts. Being a military brat, we lived on base in military housing until I was in middle school. Shopping was done at the commissary and the PX (post exchange). One of the extraordinary things that I realized later in life was how diverse my schoolmates were – enlisted families were mostly poor families: black, hispanic, asian, white. The common denominator was that our parents all worked for the same “company”. Without the structure of sports teams I’m not sure what we would have done. I think I played every sport offered by the DYA (I’m guessing that stood for the department of youth activities).
After moving off of base housing at Fort Benning, Georgia (where the School of the Americas was based) my parents sent all of us to private Catholic school, where my mom also taught. I remember having the discussion of whether or not I wanted to go to the Columbus, GA public high school or Catholic school and I pleaded with my parents to go to private school. I remember the times that tuition was late or my mom was worried that we didn’t have the money to pay. I was the first in my family to go to college.. that’s essentially where I split from the family — I started college on a studio art scholarship and then transferred into the University of Maryland in College Park.
There is definitely an age – around middle school / high school, where kids need the support to make the leap to jump out of their class. For me it was the decision to go to private school and my parents acquiescence.
The book is a best seller because he nails what it’s like growing up in Appalachia. There is a bit of a mixed message about abdicating personal responsibility and viewing everything as hopeless and stacked against your versus taking responsibility and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. In his case his mawmaw (grandmother) was the person to put him on the right path.
In the last few chapters of the book as he moves from undergrad to law school – it’s interesting to read about his realization of the distinction between poor and rich. The things about how the world really works in upper / upper-middle class families. I won’t give it away – but it’s definitely worth a read.
On the broader socioeconomic side of where the author is coming from – Chris Arnade is doing amazing ethnographic research on Twitter.