[NFBV-Potomac-Announce] Tuesday's Book Club
nancyyeager542 at comcast.net
Sun Nov 12 10:57:51 UTC 2017
The Potomac Chapter book club will meet at John and Sandy's home: 810 22nd
street South, Arlington, Virginia 22202 on Tuesday November 14 at 7:00 pm.
The book is Hillbilly Elegy.
I will send out a dinner menu soon.
As I discussed at the meeting I am having email problems. I am
transitioning to this address.
Jwh100 at outlook.com
Here are some questions.
Suggested Discussion Questions for J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of
a Family and Culture in Crisis
1. In his introduction to Hillbilly Elegy, Vance writes, "I want people to
understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological
that spiritual and material poverty has on their children" (p. 2) and states
that for the people of Appalachia-the people with whom he
is a family tradition" (p. 3). Certainly poverty is a nationwide epidemic,
but why does Vance feel the cycle of generational poverty is persistent in
Appalachian region and the cities nearby? Why is the American Dream
particularly elusive for the residents of Jackson and Middletown?
2. Vance discusses the inner conflict he feels as someone who has moved from
poverty into a higher social class, musing that "Sometimes I view members
of the elite with an almost primal scorn... But I have to give it to them:
Their children are happier and healthier, their divorce rates lower, their
attendance higher, their lives longer. These people are beating us at our
own damned game" (p. 253). While Vance's income bracket has presumably
his statement indicates that his identity remains tied to his working-class
roots. Is Vance now one of "these people," or do his childhood experiences
excuse him from acknowledging his current privilege? Do you think it's
possible to completely shift one's identity from one class to another? What
define social class, and how is class membership determined?
3. In Vance's view, race and class seem to be two separate issues. In the
book's introduction, he writes,
"This is not a story about why white people have more to complain about than
black people or any other
group. That said, I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take
from it an appreciation of how
class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a
racial prism" (p. 7-8). At the same
time, Vance discusses how people of different racial backgrounds experience
the world. He cites
controversial political scientist Charles Murray's 1984 book Losing Ground,
calling it a "book about black
folks that could have been written about hillbillies" (p. 144). What does
this comparison say about
Vance's view of race and class? Is it possible to look at how class and
family affect the poor without
considering race? What does Vance mean when he says, "filtering their views
through a racial prism"?
4. While working in the Ohio Senate, the senators and policy staff Vance
worked with were debating a bill to curb payday-lending practices. Vance
that these policymakers "had little appreciation for the role of payday
lenders in the shadow economy that people like me occupied" (p. 185). Vance
on to say that using payday lending once allowed him to avoid a significant
bank overdraft fee, and that payday lending helped to "solve important
problems" (p. 185). What is the role of payday lending? Is Vance's
experience representative of payday lending clients? Why does Vance include
when discussing his own experience of poverty?
5. Vance cites a report by the Wisconsin Children's Trust Fund stating that
well over half of working-class people had suffered at least one adverse
experience (ACE), and over 40 percent had experienced several (p. 226-7). He
writes extensively about his own traumatic childhood: his mother's drug
and arrest, the constant revolving door of father figures, and Papaw's
alcoholism, among others. Which of these experiences appear to affect Vance
deeply, and why? How does the author cope with and eventually break free
from such a difficult childhood? Although Vance acknowledges Mamaw's and
tumultuous marriage as a key factor in his mother's troubles-"Mom is the
Vance child who lost the game of statistics" (p. 232)-in what ways do his
actions and attitude contribute to his success?
6. Throughout his memoir, Vance talks about government policy and programs.
At one point in the story, he describes his experience working at a grocery
store and his encounters with customers using food stamps: I "learned how
people gamed the welfare system. They'd buy two dozen-packs of soda with
stamps and then sell them at a discount for cash. They'd ring up their
orders separately, buying food with food stamps, and beer, wine, and
with cash" (p. 139). How does Vance portray people receiving government
assistance? How does this compare with his portrayal of his own family's
What other factors might impact the way people prioritize their spending?
Are there other issues and complexities that contribute to the poverty he
7. Poverty drives many residents of Jackson and other Appalachian
communities to migrate to industrialized towns with better employment
but those opportunities gradually erode. What role does globalization play
in industrialized communities like Middletown? What factors cause some
to stay, despite the economic warning signs?
8. Vance provides many examples of lives interrupted and plagued by
addiction to alcohol and drugs, including his own mother's. Though his
addiction is ultimately what forces Vance to choose to permanently live with
Mamaw instead of his mother, Mamaw persuades him to help his mother cheat
on a drug test, saying, "I know this isn't right, honey. But she's your
mother and she's my daughter. And maybe, if we help her this time, she'll
learn her lesson" (p. 131). Throughout their lives, Vance's mother struggles
with her drug addiction, and Vance struggles with how much to help her,
and emotionally. Were Vance and Mamaw enabling his mother to continue using
drugs by helping her pass the drug test? What are some other examples of
use that Vance includes in the book? Does his analysis of the drug epidemic
provide a clear portrait of the problems facing America?
9. In the book's introduction, Vance states that his success had little to
do with his own intelligence or extraordinary ability, and much more to do
"a handful of loving people" who rescued him (p. 2). Despite this,
throughout the book Vance draws attention again and again to the element of
responsibility, perhaps nowhere so clearly as in relating Mamaw's flood
parable: "God helps those who help themselves" (p. 87). Where else do you
tension between personal responsibility and the need for familial,
governmental, or social support?
10. According to Vance, Mamaw "loathed disloyalty, and there was no greater
disloyalty than class betrayal" (p. 15). Later in the book, Vance relates a
story in which he cannot bring himself to tell a stranger at a gas station
that he is a student at Yale, acknowledging that this incident: "highlights
the inner conflict inspired by rapid upward mobility: I had lied to a
stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor" (p. 205). Vance has achieved
Mamaw wished for him, so why does his success feel like a betrayal? In what
way does Vance's success echo or conflict with the role models he
throughout his life (e.g., the Blanton men, Mamaw and Papaw, his biological
11. Reflecting upon his service in the Marine Corps and his childhood, Vance
states, "Psychologists call it 'learned helplessness' when a person
as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the
outcomes in my life. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were
learned willfulness" (p. 163). What do you think Vance means by this
statement? How did the Marine Corps change Vance? What life skills did he
valuable, and how did his service, particularly his time in Iraq, affect his
college experience and his perception of fellow students at Ohio State?
12. Vance discusses education in a multitude of ways. At one point he
states, "In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school's entering
won't make it to graduation. Most won't graduate from college" (p. 56).
Though Vance struggled in school through much of his childhood, when he
with his grandmother his senior year, he was able to focus on school and
found teachers who inspired his love of learning (p. 151). He remembers when
spent $180 on a graphing calculator when they had little money for other
things like cell phones and nice clothes (p. 137). In the end, Vance goes on
earn a law degree from Yale. How does Vance view the role of education in
society and its impact on his own life? What are the factors that allow
to excel in school? And what is society's role in ensuring external factors
don't impede educational opportunities?
13. In spite of his identity as a tall, white, straight male, Vance felt out
of place at Yale, noting, "A part of me had thought I'd finally be revealed
as an intellectual fraud, that the administration would realize they'd made
a terrible mistake and send me back to Middletown with their sincerest
(p. 201). From confusing financial aid forms, to social class signifiers
("tap or sparkling" water), to critical steps for professional advancement
in law journals), first-generation college students often encounter
intentional or unintentional gatekeeping mechanisms which can communicate to
students that they don't belong. What can be done to, as Vance puts it,
"create a space for the J.D.s" (p. 256) of the world in higher education?
systems work to discourage upward mobility and keep people within their
14. Given the examples he encountered throughout his life, Vance appears to
associate religiosity and church attendance with success, and social
with poverty and poor choices. For Vance, religion also appears to be
inextricably tied to familial acceptance. Reflecting on his inability to ask
father questions about evangelical theology, Vance notes: "I didn't know
whether he'd tell me I was a spawn of Satan and send me away" (p. 124). In
conclusion, Vance positions the young man Brian's precarious fate with,
among other things, "whether he can access a church that teaches him lessons
Christian love, family, and purpose" (p. 255). Does religion play a role in
upward social mobility? Is participation in a religious group necessary for
personal and economic success?
15. In chapter 11, Vance talks about conspiracy theories that he hears in
his community. For example,
he describes how people believe that President Barack Obama was neither born
in the U.S. nor a
Christian. Vance asserts that Obama "feels like an alien to many
Middletonians for reasons that have
nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high
school classmates attended an Ivy
League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both" (p.
191). However, ten
pages later, Vance then recounts that "Yale had educated two of the three
most recent Supreme Court
justices and two of the six most recent presidents, not to mention the
sitting secretary of state (Hillary
Clinton)" (p. 202). This suggests that the questioning of President Obama's
birthplace and religion was
unique among high-level government officials. Why did Obama's success
"strike at the heart of [this
community's] deepest insecurities" (p. 191) in a way that other government
officials' success did
not? Does this narrative of "elitism" serve to mask other forms of
exclusion, including racism?
16. In the introduction, Vance provides multiple reasons for writing his
memoir and suggests that he wants people to understand the lives of poor
When reading the book, do you see any tension between Vance's telling of his
own story and his cultural analysis of the "hillbilly" way of life? Can one
person's experience represent an entire group's? Is Vance's book more
successful as a memoir, or as a cultural analysis? Why?
17. A number of people have pointed to Hillbilly Elegy to explain the
results of the 2016 election. In the memoir, Vance recalls how at the age of
he realized that the "'party of the working man'-the Democrats-weren't all
they were cracked up to be" (p. 140). He goes on to argue that people in
and the South "went from being staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican
in less than a generation" (p. 140), and attributes a big part of this shift
to white working-class people seeing other poor people take advantage of
government assistance. Do you agree with Vance's assertion? Are there
in using one individual's experience to explain larger social shifts? Do you
think this book explains the results of the 2016 election?
Questions courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison and Madison Public
For more information please visit gobigread.wisc.edu
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