Vance the Brave: or, Re-imagining My Poor White Life

Publicity photo of Buddy Ebsen and Phil Silvers from The Beverly Hillbillies. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia. 

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have had this book on my notifications list from Book Depository for some time now, and then I stumbled (or bumbled!) upon it in the tiny English section of the bookstore at Shanghai's Pudong International Airport. 

At the time of writing, I understand Vance was 31 years old. He mocked himself for daring to call a book by someone so young a "memoir". Having read it, he had no reason to mock himself. 

This is the story of a smart kid who grew up with little social capital, but because of a sympathetic grandmother, was able to finish school then join the Marines then finish college and then practise law after graduating from Yale. Change a few place names, sans the drugs and the guns, and I could re-publish this as the story of my own life. 

Even though I would be lying because I didn't experience the familial breakdown Vance experienced, but his ability to get the hell out of a small town by joining the military, getting through university despite himself, and learning the importance of social capital, was as important for a boy from Western Sydney and later Far North Queensland as it was for this ex-Kentucky hillbilly. 

I cannot bring myself to be as honest here as Vance is in the book. Given nobody would bother to read this but thousands must have read Vance, he is certainly brave. I can imagine he must have upset many members of his family to write about such private and personal matters but I am glad he did. 

Assuming, of course, that a kid lacking in social capital would bother to read it. 

For those who have survived, reading the book is eminently cathartic. I found myself nodding in agreement as I read of the trials and travails. At other times, I was screaming at Vance with things like: "You still don't get it!" then remembering that at 31, I didn't get anything at all. 

If I were to sum up this work, I would say it was courageously honest. I cannot remember where I first stumbled upon this book, but it was probably in early 2017 in The New Yorker. It provides a glimpse into the gaining of social capital through constant struggle, being mentored by someone who can see where one is at (even when one's ego wouldn't allow one to be mentored), stumbling from class conscious faux pas to class unconscious faux pas, only to arrive at what Rousseau would have said was buying an experience that was hardly worth the cost. 

We are fortunate that writers such as Vance have the courage to do what most of us will never. The work provides a glimpse into explanations for the intolerant world we are living in at present, while also providing hope that there is a way out of this mess, even our personal messes.

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