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« My year in review | Main | Let The Earth Receive Her King! »
Thursday
Dec292016

Initial thoughts about Hillbilly Elegy

I gave in and purchased Hillbilly Elegy over Christmas. I'm halfway through, and I am finding it a good read. It kind of reminds me of Angela's Ashes, although while Vance is a good story-teller, I enjoyed McCourt's prose more. McCourt managed to create a little humour to break the tension. Vance's grandmother sounds like a pretty interestng woman, but I cannot fathom my grandmother ever using the kind of obscenities that Vance's Mamaw used. 

The terms "hillbily" and "white trash" are not terms I grew up with. While there were any number of racial and socioeconomic insults heard on the playground, most of them were directed to Jewish students, black students, or in some places we lived, Indigenous students. The neighbourhood where I lived in Winnipeg for four years is no longer a newer community for young families just getting started, like it was when my parents purchased their first home there. It has become a run down, poor neighbourhood. When I purchased the book The Break, I was struck by the references to the poverty of North Winnipeg; that is where we lived. We didn't have a lot of money, but it wasn't as poor as it could have been.

While not called "hillbillies," my family roots are in the white poor. My maternal grandfather was a coal miner in Saskatchewan, and my paternal grandfather a farmer in southern Manitoba. My mother grew up in a mining camp and only later moved into town when the strip mine where my grandfather worked closed, and he moved to a different one. There was racisim in that community I am sure. For many years, I was unaware that my great-grandmother, my grandmother's mother, was, in fact, Métis. There was talk over the years that my ancestors were acquainted with Métis, but it wasn't until a few years ago when I was researching our family trees that I was given a photograph of my great-grandmother, Agnes, who was obviously of Aboriginal descent. On further investigation, I discovered that her father, originally from Manitoba, was shoved off his land and went to the United States for a few years before settling back in Saskathchewan. No one told me this. There was shame and racism, and I believe my grandmother was embarrassed by this heritage. I don't know why my mother never talked about it. I suspect she shared that shame.

The fact of the matter is that only a very minute percentage of the general population has its roots in wealth. North America was a colony. While it drew people with money, the immigrants who came here did so because they wanted a better life, and often arrived with very little. I think many people have a poor background, and passing on poverty is a difficult thing to prevent because breaking such cycles takes time. The issues around poverty are complex and cannot be answered easily.

What has struck me so far about Hillbilly Elegy is the matter of drug abuse and alcoholism. I realize that poverty tends to beget such abuses. My family was poor, and so were the familes of both of my parents, but substance abuse did not find its way to my parents. It was not an issue with my mother's parents nor my father's. I'm sure some other sorts of dysfunction were passed down, but thankfully, that's not one of them. We were always well-taken care of no matter how little we had, and there were no incidents of minor children having to fend for themselves while parents were absent or having to do without because a parent needed to feed his addiction.

It's been an interesting read, and I'm looking forward to finishing it and seeing what conclusions Vance draws from his story.

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