Trying to Understand Part 5: White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy

Nancy Isenberg, White Trash (2016)
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (2016)

This is part 5 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding  Part 2: Dark Money Part 3: Strangers In Their Own Land  Part 4: Listen, Liberal

Also posted as part of Nonfiction November, hosted by JulzReads, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Doing Dewey, and yours truly. Please visit these blogs for tons of wonderful nonfiction reviews, discussions, and more!

White Trash is subtitled “The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” which I find misleading. This is not primarily an overall history of class structures and conflicts throughout the entire United States, but a study of the origins and development of a particular group generated by a peculiar intersection of ethnicity, economics, and geography. Variously called white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, mudsills, and other derogatory names, this distinctively Southern underclass is an uncomfortable part of our national heritage. Through the years it has been reviled or celebrated, ignored or grotesquely exaggerated, but never integrated into our American self-image in a constructive way.

So, overlooking the grandiose subtitle, what does the book have to say about where this group came from and how it has developed? Starting with the early days of European settlement, it’s an absorbing and appalling chronicle of how our country was seen in part as a repository for the “waste people” of Europe, who were relegated to substandard, badly managed land and grew into their own caste alongside the institution of slavery. Shadowing the imported black race was a home-grown white race of uncivilized, illiterate, violent, promiscuous, lazy throwbacks, who had to be kept down so that the more palatable elements in American society could rise to the top.

The whole image of human waste, going along with the laying waste of the environment, rang true to me as something that we need to face up to right now. The so-called New World was once seen as a limitless field for exploitation, where people and resources could be discarded or pushed aside in order to create new possibilities for a certain portion of the population. But as we now know, our world cannot be exploited indefinitely, and human waste is as problematic as any other. The illusion of the “classless society,” Isenberg argues, was actually a way for those in power to mask their fear of class mobility and solidify structures that benefited them. Regarding the rural poor as a race apart was key to keeping them in their place.

An eye-opening point, which Isenberg traces in detail from its origins at the very beginning of colonization, is that the antislavery movement was strongly founded in the observation that slavery was pushing out and paralyzing the white laboring class. For many abolitionists, the goal was not to uphold the human rights of black people, but to give work back to the white underclass who were squeezed out of the Southern aristocracy. They, in turn, fought back against what they saw as a degenerate Northern rabble who would upend the social hierarchy within their own race. They argued that slavery at least provided a class above which poor whites could feel superior, and thus satisfied with their lot at the bottom of the (white) social ladder. Such cruelly tangled thinking is incredibly difficult to root out of the American soul, it seems.

Another striking section was about the eugenics movement that flourished here only a century ago. The solution to the problem of America’s “strange breed” was to be found in better breeding, in people of good blood choosing the right mates and in sterilization or even euthanasia of the bad seeds. Theodore Roosevelt was a strong supporter of eugenics, among many other prominent voices. Though we Americans like to feel we are on moral high ground compared to the Nazis, it’s important to realize that with a little push over the edge into mass hysteria, there could have been a kind of Holocaust here in the middle of the last century. There still could, as it feels as though we are treading very close to that edge right now, and any number of groups could be targeted.

Unfortunately, soon after this the final part of the book disintegrated into a confused muddle of reflections on trailer parks, Elvis Presley, LBJ, Dolly Parton, Deliverance, Sarah Palin, and other topics without a clear focus or conclusion. Perhaps that is not inappropriate, as there is certainly no way to wrap up this problematic segment of society in a neat intellectual package. But it proved something of a letdown after some of the earlier insights.

Isenberg herself starts to seem ambivalent in her view of the actual human beings behind the “white trash” label, distancing herself from them by only discussing public figures and pop culture phenomena, rather than ever actually talking to real people. In her over-the-top descriptions there is a certain amount of disgust and repugnance, even as she tries to point our attention toward an unjustly neglected population. Thus she demonstrates the very contradictions that have plagued our country from the start, the tension between fascination and repulsion that has prevented any meaningful change from taking place. Where do we find the compassion and true humanity to bridge the gap, and fully encompass this part of our being?

For this endeavor, a first-person account like J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy can be a help. Vance grew up in Ohio, but his family was from Kentucky and retained strong emotional and cultural ties there. Vance movingly depicts his troubled upbringing with an unstable mother, the vicious cycle of poverty, abuse, and hopelessness, and the saving grace found through the love of his grandmother. “Mamaw” is an unforgettable personality, tremendously flawed but gloriously human. Her power to make a difference in her grandson’s life shows how love can bring transformation into the most unlikely places.

Vance is less successful when he tries to interject some political and historical commentary into the narrative. He often seems underinformed, and at times harmfully naive — as when he argues that his conservative social group were repelled by President Obama not because of his race, but because Obama was an Ivy League graduate who “didn’t talk like us.” (I doubt they would have quite the same reaction to a white person with the same credentials; antagonism aroused by people of color gaining education and social status is a very pervasive feature of racism.)

Though his early school career was difficult, after a stint in the Marine Corps Vance became a lawyer and thus made it into the promised land of the rich. Some find this an inspiring trajectory, but I had mixed feelings about it. Why is it that everyone who wants to “make it” has to become a lawyer? Vance doesn’t seem to have any interest in the field other than its money-making potential, and his description of his time in law school focuses mainly on how he had to negotiate the social hurdles of being with an elite population for the first time, bluffing his way through until he gained the knowledge and skills he lacked. Very likely there’s more to his inner life that he didn’t express, and I don’t want to unfairly denigrate his very real achievement, but as presented in the book there was something hollow about it.

A conversation between Nancy Isenberg and J.D. Vance would certainly be interesting, and maybe someday that will happen. In the meantime, both books are worth reading, especially in tandem. In different ways, each sheds light on a part of our national character that is hard to face, but dangerous to ignore.



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Nonfiction November: New To My TBR Round-up


It’s been another wonderful Nonfiction November, and we all have piles of books to read. There were different ways to handle all the recommendations that came our way this month…

The most common method was to assemble a fairly random collection of tempting titles:

But it was also possible to focus on a single title:

Or pick one book for each of the five weeks of Nonfiction November:

Organize by theme:

  • Unruly Reader (medical, aviation, Supreme Court, amazing women)

Or express appreciation for the discovery of new blogs, as well as new books:

Some titles that turned up on multiple lists were:

  • The Inkblots
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead
  • Hillbilly Elegy
  • Lab Girl
  • A Thousand Naked Strangers

Thanks once more to everyone who participated — and especially to Katie of Doing Dewey, who got the ball rolling this year, and also hosts a monthly Nonfiction Book Club (co-hosted by me this month, in conjunction with the Reading New England challenge). I hope you might join us, in case you can’t wait till next November to share some great reading and discussion!

In any event, enjoy your new discoveries, and keep the conversation going. We have a lot to offer one another in our nonfiction reading journey.

Nonfiction November: New to My TBR Link-Up


It’s my honor to be the host for Nonfiction November this week, with our final topic: New to My TBR.

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR list? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

More than ever, I’m looking for nonfiction books that expand my view of the world and illuminate unfamiliar perspectives. Here are just a few of the books I’m inspired to read now, with many thanks to the bloggers who brought them to my attention:

  • Lab Girl recommended by Doing Dewey: “It gives the best idea of what it’s like to do science in academia of any book I’ve read, but it was also accessible, moving, and beautifully written.”
  • Hillbilly Elegy recommended by Sarah’s Book Shelves: “It achieves a delicate balance of entertaining dysfunctional childhood memoir and social analysis that’s pertinent to this election cycle.”
  • Nothing to Envy recommended by Novels and Nonfiction: “The stories of despair and love, unity and self-sufficiency, family and individual survival are compelling, terribly sad and at the same time hugely revealing of the state of affairs in North Korea over the past two decades.”
  • In Other Words recommended by Words and Peace: “Even if English is your only language, I think this would be a remarkable exposure for you, a discovery of the world of languages, and maybe a gentle incentive to learn another one.”
  • Committed recommended by Reading the End: “Committed provides an insightful, balanced look at the many complex factors that influence involuntary mental health care. If you’re remotely interested in mental health or civil liberties, I highly recommend this excellent book.”
  • On Living recommended by Books on the Table: “Hospice chaplain Egan has written a beautiful and inspiring book about her experiences working with dying patients.”
  • Dark Money recommended by ipsofactodotme: “This was just plain ‘scary’ ! Wealth has given the super-rich the power to steer the economic and political direction of the United States and undermine its democracy.

I’m also interested in reading the NYT’s list of Six books to help understand Trump’s win, as suggested by Hibernator’s Library. If you’d like to join us, check out Rachel’s post.

Below, you can link up your own posts — whether they are answers to this week’s topic, or reviews of nonfiction books — and I’ll do a round-up on Friday, December 2.

Thanks to everyone who participated this month; I so much appreciated the chance to share it with you. And thanks to Doing Dewey, Sarah’s Book Shelves, Hibernator’s Library, and JulzReads for hosting. If you haven’t already, be sure to visit their posts for even more great nonfiction suggestions.

Nonfiction November: Become the Expert


This week, the Nonfiction November topic is Be the Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert, hosted by Julie of Julz Reads.

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I have 94 books on my Goodreads nonfiction to-read list, so I thought I’d start there and see if I could find any common theme. One topic I seem to want to read about is “Amazing Journeys.”


Lois on the Loose by Lois Pryce
Unlike my husband, I am not a motorcycle aficionado — but this tale of an adventuresome “biker babe” who ditches her safe BBC job and takes off across the Americas sounds like a fun ride anyway.


The Old Ways by Robert McFarlane
Subtitled “a journey on foot,” this is the story of the author’s rambles from his Cambridge home across the old paths and byways of Britain, and further afield on the pilgrimage ways of Europe. I’m interested in how it illuminates the interior path as well as the external journey.


Worlds Elsewhere by Andrew Dickson
Exploring “how Shakespeare became the world’s writer,” this literary travelogue delves into the cultural history of many lands, showing how one playwright changed the world and how his works have also been transformed thereby.


Mother Tongue by Christine Gilbert
A language-mad mother boldly uproots her family in order to learn Mandarin in China, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico. They seem to have survived the experience, and even gained some fascinating insights into language and culture.


In Search of Mary by Bee Rowlatt
After reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark,” the author (toddler in tow) sets out to see how the early feminist may have influenced those countries, then forays to France and America for more musings on life and motherhood.

Isn’t it wonderful that reading can take us all over the world, sharing in these incredible experiences? Looking at my TBR reminded me of how fascinating these books sounded when I added them — I’m newly inspired to hunt them out and “become the expert” now! What’s on your list?

Nonfiction November: Book Pairings


This week brings one of my favorite features of Nonfiction November: the Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairing, hosted by Sarah of Sarah’s Book Shelves.

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

Last year I managed to find quite a few unplanned, serendipitous pairings from my reading of the past twelve months. But this year the connections were not so clear, except for one pair of books that came my way via the Reading New England challenge. I do highly recommend them both, for the way in which they illuminate the shameful role of slavery in our region’s history, and the roots of the pernicious racism that is bearing its bitter fruit today.

Click on the titles for more information, via my original reviews.


New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America



The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation


What nonfiction/fiction book pairings would you recommend?


Nonfiction November: Choosing Nonfiction


Now that Witch Week is over, it’s time to turn to another favorite event that takes place at this time of year: Nonfiction November! This week’s question, posed by Rachel of Hibernator’s Library, is:

Choosing Nonfiction: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

I tend to gravitate toward books that are similar to fiction: memoirs, narrative nonfiction, history that is told through the lives of individuals. Since I’m no longer in school, I’m not drawn to “textbook”-type expositions of material, but I do love learning new things through nonfiction. That’s not to say I won’t choose any books that are not told through personal narrative, but they do account for a fairly small percentage of my total reading.

In terms of writing style, I love it when the writer has an individual voice and some sense for the artistry of language, rather than a dry, pedantic way of writing. However, I have put down books that were too flowery and in love with their own eloquence. In nonfiction, there is a topic to be focused on, and the writing style should serve that rather than being an end in itself.

An attractive cover never hurts, of course — it might get me to pick up a book, but it’s the contents that will keep me reading.

Here are some of my favorites from this year, representing some of my favorite topics. What are yours?





Social Justice











Pictures in the Mind: Country Boy

Richard Hillyer, Country Boy (1966)

SFE-country-boyWith their small size and brightly colored cloth covers, Slightly Foxed Editions resemble jewels in book form, a literary treasure chest. And here is treasure indeed. Each book contains a memoir of a singular individual, revealing many facets of human nature in all its richness and complexity. Most are reprints, revived from the archives of the past for a new generation of discerning readers. While some are attached to well-known names like Rosemary Sutcliff and Graham Greene, many are from authors who have lapsed into obscurity.

In the latter category is Country Boy, a moving yet supremely unsentimental account of a boy’s life within an English farm laborer’s family just over a century ago. Deep feeling and clear-eyed observation merge to create a memorable, distinct picture of that vanished world and of the brave, struggling souls who inhabited it. The country life is neither idealized as a pastoral Arcadia, as we tend to see it today, nor demonized as a hotbed of vice and squalor, as certain novelists would have it. Both the beauties and the drawbacks of traditional rural life are described in calm, measured prose that brings a place and people vividly before us, with few judgments but many telling details.

The Hop Gardens of England – Source

Most memorable to me were the passages in which the author describes his longing for something different, a way into the wider world revealed to him by the scraps of literature he was able to pick up within his outwardly impoverished existence. How he treasured and sought and ultimately used these to grow into something more than the fate he was born to forms a narrative as gripping as that as any novel. For those of us who value reading above nearly all other pleasures and benefits of life, he articulates experiences and feelings that we can share no matter what the circumstances of our birth or upbringing.

The coloured words flashed out and entranced my fancy. They drew pictures in my mind. Words became magical, incantations, abracadabra which called up spirits. My dormant imagination opened like a flower in the sun. Life at home was drab and colorless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.

Country Boy is a real gem, one I’m sure I’ll return to often for its wisdom, insight, and compassion. I do wish that the story could have been continued; this was the author’s only memoir, and it breaks off at a very exciting point. But he didn’t set out to chronicle his whole life, only to capture a certain bygone time, and that he does to perfection.


Teaching Lessons: Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?

Ilana Garon, Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens? Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (2014)

WhyDoOnlyAfter receiving Ilana Garon’s book in a giveaway courtesy of the author and River City Reading earlier this year, I flipped through it and then put it back on the shelf. When I finally picked it up again, I raced through it in less than 24 hours. Do yourself a favor and don’t wait so long to read this memoir of four years spent in two tough high schools in one of the toughest areas of the country. It will open your eyes to some of the painful realities of our broken educational system, yet it’s also a joyful testament to the bond between teacher and student that is one of our most universal human experiences.

Ilana (I can’t think of her as “Miss Garon”) writes in a voice that is honest and searching and real. She focuses each chapter on one or two of her students, portraying them with all their endearing and infuriating qualities intact. Her love for them is powerful but unsentimental, and she doesn’t paint herself as their savior. As she makes clear, the lessons of teaching go both ways. There are big problems in her school and its neighborhood — drugs, gangs, abuse, teen pregnancy — and her achievements may seem tiny in comparison. But even small victories, for both teacher and student, gain significance when the stakes are so high. The failures are also real, and discouraging, but no teacher can survive long without finding a way to move through through them, and it is these lessons that have the most impact.

Interspersed with these fairly traditional character/relationship studies are journal entries that Ilana sent to her friends and family while undergoing some of her most harrowing and frustrating teaching moments. These are presented in email format, complete with subject lines like “Weapons of mass destruction” and “Can’t we please get through ninth period without a race riot?” It’s an unusual and effective way to bring some immediate, raw experiences into the more consciously crafted and reflective chapters. (I’m including this review in the “Nontraditional Nonfiction” category of Nonfiction November for this reason.) Frequently dealing with violent and explosive situations, they don’t necessarily try to impose order or meaning upon them, but just tell us “this is what is happening to me right now,” giving an intimate window into the writer’s world.

Ilana is modest about her own qualities, but clearly she has a core of strength and enthusiasm that’s enabled her to carry on with a task that has felled many lesser mortals. (After taking two years off to do a graduate degree, she returned to teaching and also writes an “Urban Teacher” blog for Education Week.) I hope she’ll share more of her experiences with us, as I for one would welcome more “teaching lessons” from this talented writer and dedicated teacher.


Nonfiction November: Book Pairings


Whew! It’s been intense hosting the second annual Witch Week, which you can read all about here in case you missed it. And now it’s already the second week of Nonfiction November, which for the second year in a row is being hosted by the lovely bloggers at Doing Dewey, Sophisticated Dorkiness, I’m Lost in Books and Regular Ruminations. They have wonderful weekly discussion topics, post link-ups, and a readalong on offer. I hope you’ll join in!

This week’s topic is Fiction/Nonfiction Book Pairings, and I had a great time putting some recommendations together for you. All of these are from books I’ve read within the past year, and I was surprised at how many perfect pairings I found from that limited selection. If you think nonfiction is not your thing, try some of these! You might find that it complements your fictional reading better than you had imagined. (Likewise, if you’re not interested in fiction, some of these might change your mind.) My review, if I did one, is linked from the book title.


Fish  Hat

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

Bellos’s book was one of my favorite finds from last year’s Nonfiction November. Witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking, it illuminates the importance of translation and how it extends into many different aspects of our lives. For a practical application, see how the English translation of Laurain’s brief novel used three different translators to interpret the diverse narrative voices that emerge as an iconic black felt hat makes a roundabout journey through France, changing lives along the way.


Devil  Grace

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Larson reconstructs the chilling career of an early serial killer against the backdrop of the incredible achievements of the builders of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition, a turning point in American cultural history. Atwood takes a real murder case as the starting point for a sly and subversive narrative that brings up many questions about gender, mind, and identity, but gives us few answers.


Duke  Armadale

The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife, and the Missing Corpse: An Extraordinary Edwardian Case of Mystery and Intrigue by Piu Marie Atwell
Armadale by Wilkie Collins

As I read about a real-life melodrama in Piu Marie Eatwell’s stranger-than-fiction saga, I kept thinking “This would be a perfect plot for a Wilkie Collins novel.” So why not pair it with one of Collins’s deliciously over-the-top sensation novels, in which a strangely sympathetic villainness plots to get her own back through marriage — or murder.


Reba_9780385682848_jkt_all_r3.indd  Hollow

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks
The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam

An account of a modern-day shepherd’s life in the beautiful, stark country of England’s Lake District is perfectly complemented by Jane Gardam’s quietly hilarious linked stories of a native-born Cumbrian family and the visitors who come to love the place as much as they do.


Royal  Wolves

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of George III by Janice Hadlow
The Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken

Janice Hadlow’s biography reveals that King George III tried to break his family’s cycle of parent/child oppression and misunderstanding…but he didn’t do very well. Pair that with Joan Aiken’s fantastic adventure stories of an alternate England governed by the Stuarts instead of the Hanoverians (with supporters of Bonnie Prince Georgie lurking in the wings). Bad history, perhaps, but great fun.


Victorian  Sibyl

How To Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman
Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

Ruth Goodman’s meticulous research — which includes not washing with water for four months and making historically accurate condoms — gives a fascinating glimpse into what Victorian life was really like. Follow it up with Patricia Duncker’s neo-Victorian pastiche of love and publishing in nineteenth century Berlin, centered around the literary giant George Eliot and her great, late works.

What nonfiction/fiction pairings do you have to suggest — from this year’s reading, or any other?

In the Kingdom of Ice (Nonfiction November Review)

Hampton Sides, In the Kingdom of Ice (2014)


For my third and final Nonfiction November title (following One Summer: America 1927 and Empty Mansions), I thought it would be interesting to delve into American history once more. This time, upon recommendations by many including Books on the Table, I chose In the Kingdom of Ice, the story of an ill-starred polar expedition that set out to attempt to break through what was thought to be a ring of ice into a temperate, or even tropical “Open Polar Sea” — an idea that was firmly fixed in the nineteenth-century imagination, but had absolutely no basis in reality, as the expedition fatefully discovered.

When I got the book from the library and found 500 pages of densely-packed text, I was a bit daunted. But once I began reading, the pages flew by. The story was so compelling, and the writing so vivid, that I felt like I was there alongside the crew as they battled incredible odds to try to win their way back to civilization.  I was full of admiration for the brave, determined captain George De Long, who vowed “no man shall be left alone” through their terrible ordeal. Many of his comrades also showed amazing endurance and selflessness, while a few displayed a more unsavory side of humanity as they slid toward madness, melancholia, or just plain irritating everyone to death.

The land-bound characters were equally memorable, including the eccentric newspaper magnate who funded the voyage; De Long’s long-suffering wife, whose heartbreakingly poignant letters to her missing husband punctuate the text; and the brilliant but unbalanced armchair geographer whose misguided notions set the whole tragedy in motion.

The enormous amount of research that must have gone into this book is gracefully and even elegantly transformed into a seamless narrative. Quotations from journals and letters are integrated into the text, contributing to the “you are there” quality. The Arctic landscape comes to life in all its grandeur and horror, as the men move through its terrain and encounter its wildlife and people. There is much information to be gleaned, about post-Civil War American society and the scientific culture of the time in general as well as about polar exploration in particular, yet the reader never feels overwhelmed by scholarship or barraged by facts.

In short, In the Kingdom of Ice is a splendidly thrilling, moving, and thought-provoking journey of adventure, both outer and inner. I’m so glad to have discovered it.

Be sure to check out all the great posts being linked this month for Nonfiction November:

Week One: My Year in Nonfiction
Week Two: Be/Become/Ask the Expert
Week Three: Diversity and Nonfiction
Week Four: New to My TBR List