Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

As a grandchild of Scots-Irish hillbillies from a real life holler, I couldn't wait to read this book. I even went to the same undergraduate school as Vance. I was so ready to find a description of myself in these pages, but I honestly found myself more alienated with every chapter.

I loved the descriptions of his family and their antics, his methods of coping and his struggles. These felt like home. I, too, had a conditional mother with substance abuse problems, a cavalcade of aunts and uncles with murders and abuse under their belts who I love like hell, stories that make some people cringe or run in fear, but fill me with that weird familial pride. But it seems that's where our paths diverge. I don't know if Vance and I are just on two different poles of the political spectrum, but I often found the author weirdly calloused when it came to the plight of our ancestors.

I routinely felt like Vance was slipping into the old "the poor just don't work hard enough!" territory that oppresses and keeps oppressed so many of the disadvantaged. Vance explores the motives, pitfalls, and victories of two subsets of society that I'm sure do exist: the lazy pessimists who let the world roll over them and then blame the world for rolling; and the motivated poor who reach out for help, open themselves up to some serious introspection, and clamor wildly and passionately up out of the holler, Yale degree in tow. But what about the people in the middle? What about the people trapped in vicious cycles of poverty, isolated from assistance and health insurance, unable to obtain good birth control, unable to travel to get the training they need for the jobs they want, isolated from the extended family structures Vance so heavily relied upon? Are they poor because they haven't been able to really admit to their shortcomings, or because they have to pay over half of their wages to live in a sub par apartment in a town laid out in such a way to require the purchase of a car, acquiring increasingly more debt, even though they know it's all wrong?

It makes sense that Vance would write about what he knows, but from my experience, most of the hillbillies I know and love fall into this third unmentioned category. Hell, until I moved in with my husband I was in this category. I had a good job that paid just enough to keep me content, but not enough to save. I was unhappy there, but couldn't leave because of my debt. Vance warns us not to blame the government or society, but I feel like more outreach, more education, might be a partial answer here. For example, my great grandmother was an amazing woman. She had her first child at 14 and didn't stop having a kid every two years for 20 years until her eldest child returned from the flatlands of Ohio and told her mother about birth control. Until this revelation, the rumor was that great grandpa would drunkenly jump on her stomach, upset that he'd have another mouth to feed. I can't help but wonder how more assistance and education would have improved her life. Maybe, sometimes, I can blame society.
A relative's home in my native West Virginia.

I wonder, though, if I'm just falling into something I've noticed many of my Appalachian relatives do: am I engaging in a perverse pissing contest? Was my holler the poorest, was my grandmother the most slighted, did my Papa walk farther to school, in deeper snow, with thinner shoes?

Still, I enjoyed this book. I just wish it didn't read like a college entrance essay, a gear-up for a run for public office, or a letter back home ("Look at how good I did, Pa!"). Vance has had an intensely interesting life and will no doubt accomplish many wonderful things, I just hope he is able to look beyond his own experience and open himself up even more to the plight of the poor. If this book had focused less on what Vance considers successful, and more on the personal, I would have been hooked. Maybe I would have preferred a biography of Mamaw.

Friday, June 30, 2017

American Eclipse by David Baron

I'm not an astronomer by any stretch of the word, but I do hold a special fondness for the night sky and for anyone, amateur or otherwise, who studies it. Here are some of my fondest moments: My dad, ushering us outside, watch held up high, counting down the seconds until a satellite streaks overhead. The first one to spot it won - though the prize, a dim feeling that you knew the universe best, had communed with it somehow - was intangible. Laying with my sister in the middle of the road (something our dad didn't entirely approve of) and watching the Perseid meteor shower on an August night, counting shooting stars (the goal: over a hundred), getting scared out of our minds when sounds came from the nearby underbrush. Listening to my dad recount the pure wonder of watching the moon landing on television.

So, the upcoming "Great American Eclipse" on August 21, 2017, which, as it happens, is also our first wedding anniversary, is something I expect to add to that litany of astronomical wonders I hold dear. However, I don't really know much about eclipses, and I refuse to show up to a party unprepared, which is how I ended up reading American Eclipse by David Baron.

This is the story of the 1878 eclipse that shadowed much of the American west. Scientists, spurred on by a rivalry with Europe, flocked to the dusty, ramshackle railroad towns in the line of totality, hoping to find something to cement their places in history. They encountered Native Americans, women aiming to prove that they had a place in science, horrid weather, and a lot of big egos. I found the interpersonal relationships mentioned in this book almost as interesting as the science itself.

I felt fully immersed in the Victorian setting, which, I found, I didn't know as much about as I thought I did! I had no idea what the average person's perception of science was, how people of different classes traveled long distances, how newspapers functioned, all of it! I was surprised by Thomas Edison's involvement and reputation among scientists and truly enjoyed the descriptions of the west. I might even give a Western a chance - there's just something appealing about it. This is one of the most informative books I've read in a long time.

Even if you're not an umbraphile (a person who loves and chases solar eclipses), this book is a well-written and fascinating glimpse into a formative period of American history.