THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)





"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance





hill-bil-ly (noun)
a term used by people from the country to describe themselves with pride, but used by others as an insult for people whom they regard as ignorant and unsophisticated

el·e·gy (noun)
a mournful or reflective poem


I am a hill person. So is much of America’s white working class. And we hill people aren’t doing very well….Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family. – J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance grew up in the town of Middletown, Ohio. However, his grandparents were originally from Jackson, Kentucky, a coal mining town in the Appalachian area of the state, and had migrated to Middletown in 1947 so that his grandfather could take a job in the Armco steel mill. Their move was part of a large wave of migration from the same region to the same area and for the same reason. He says that he lived in Middletown, but his heart was always in Jackson, an area that he often visited with his grandparents when he was a youngster, and that he considered himself to be a hillbilly.

At first the migrants fared much better than they had in the areas they had left. They worked hard, of course, but their jobs required no education and little technical skill and their union insured that they were paid well and that their fringe benefits were substantial.

But then came globalization, automation, conglomeration, de-unionization, and things went south for the whole Midwest, literally in some cases, and a region that once led the world in industrial production became known as the Rust Belt.

Vance begins his book with a confession:

I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there on the cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life….The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School, something thirteen-year-old J.D. Vance would have considered ludicrous….I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs.

So I didn’t write this book because I’ve achieved something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school, raised me, and few members of even my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future – that if they’re lucky, they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year….

I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.”

The book has become a publishing sensation. Just type in the author’s name or the title of the book in Google and you will see what I mean. Political conservatives love it because Vance, a conservative Republican, lays a lot of the blame for the ills of the Rust Belt citizenry on the lack of individual initiative and responsibility. While he admits globalization and automation have played a role, and that government policies might help a little, he also believes that “the problems were not created by the governments or the corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” By “we,” he means the very people whose lives have become unmoored by political and economic forces and who face uncertain futures.

Some of his solutions strike me as being overly simplistic. For example, he says that those who have no future in the Rust Belt should go where the jobs are. After all, that is what his grandparents and many others did when they left Kentucky and migrated to Ohio. And there have been many other mass migrations through the years in which people who experienced economic dislocation pulled up stakes and headed west or north in search of a better life.

But those people had a chance of purchasing cheap farm land or finding good unskilled jobs that paid well. Today, however, neither the cheap land nor the unskilled jobs exist. Both are gone. What good does it do one to go where the good jobs exist if one has neither the education nor the skills to get one?

But I heartily agree with one reviewer who wrote that Vance chooses “to adopt a tone of thoughtful reflection with a genuine desire for mutual understanding – almost a lost art in this soundbite-talking-head age" and another reviewer who wrote, “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Vance is a good writer and a natural born storyteller – and what an inspirational and touching personal story he has to tell. He has lived an amazing life in which he has overcome tremendous obstacles that the vast majority of people have never confronted or even imagined. And against all odds, seemingly insurmountable, he has achieved the American Dream. At one point he admits “I am one lucky son of a bitch.” Well, yes, he is, but sometimes we make our own luck and his life is exhibit number one.










Monday, September 12, 2016

TRIALS OF THE EARTH: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton





One of my favorite novels of last year – or any year, for that matter – was The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman.  Set in the Appalachians in North Carolina it is the story of one woman’s struggle to cope with the trials and tribulations of a pioneer woman during the Civil War and its aftermath.
  
Recently, I finished Trials of the Earth about another pioneer woman and I was struck by the similarities between the two stories.  However, there is one big difference: Trials of the Earth is not fiction.

It is rather amazing that it was ever published.  The book’s serendipitous path to publication began in the early ‘30’s when a young Mississippi writer, Helen Dick Davis, first met Mary Mann Hamilton (1866-ca. 1936), who was living nearby in her daughter’s home.  After they became friends, Davis became enthralled by the stories that the older woman told her about her life as a pioneer wife and mother who spent many years cooking for boarding houses located in lumber camps in the Mississippi Delta.
  
Davis encouraged Hamilton to write down what she remembered about those experiences.  At first Davis resisted but eventually relented and became obsessed with getting it all down on paper.

In the preface to the manuscript Davis wrote in 1933:

When I began to beg her to write down the account of her life, if only as a record for her children and grandchildren, she did it just to please me.  She wrote it piecemeal at first, just scattered experiences, ten or fifteen pages at a time written with pencil on cheap tablet paper; stories of terrible floodwaters, cyclones, feuds to the death, escaped Negro convicts….

By spring of 1933 Mary Hamilton had given me 150,000 words on this book.  I have edited it, worked over it with her, and guided her in her choice of material, but I have in no case added to nor changed what she wrote….

I want to reassure the reader that my presence does not enter the book.  I have not touched her style, nor embellished her material.  It is a direct and simple autobiography.

Despite what Davis wrote, her editing task was monumental.  Hamilton had received practically no education and her spelling, grammar, and punctuation had to be corrected in order to make the manuscript readable.  But Hamilton’s voice comes through clearly; the storytelling is unpolished and unvarnished.

After my morning work of milking, churning, cleaning house, getting dinner and supper at one time, and cutting a dress for someone, I would help the children in the field all afternoon.  Then I would come in at sundown and milk, while Leslie [her young daughter] finished supper…. After we ate supper…while the children did the dishes, I started making a dress I had cut out that morning, and I never got up from the machine till that dress was finished.  Everyone I made meant a dollar cash…. I would make a dollar sewing almost every day.

Accidents, illness, and death were ever present in Mary Hamilton’s life.  And so were tornadoes, fires, panthers, bears, snakes, and even escaped convicts – and floods.  There is a harrowing account of her being trapped in a flood when the nearby Sunflower River overflowed its levee.

She found herself stranded with her small daughter and two month old baby on top of a stump located on a ridge with the rain coming down and the flood waters rising rapidly.  

It was midafternoon, and the water was up over the stump, lapping my feet. The old tree that I had been so afraid of in the morning was still standing.  Now I prayed it would fall on us, kill all three of us at once and end this suspense. About that time I saw the top kind of quiver.  I shut my eyes, clutched my children tight, and to myself said, “Thank God.”  It came down with a crash; cold water poured over us.  I opened my eyes.  It had missed us by a few feet….

Of course, I was glad it had missed us but disappointed to be facing again this slow sure death.  I could see no possible hope….

…[T]he only prayer I could think of to ask God was to let them die first so I could take care of them to the end.

There is even a mystery at the heart of Mary Hamilton’s account of the struggles and adversity that she and her family faced.  I’m not going to give that away.  But her dedication written in the front of the book serves as a teaser:


To my husband’s people
whoever they are,
and wherever they may be


The book was rejected by Little, Brown in 1933.  It resurfaced in the early ‘90’s when it was published by the University of Mississippi Press, but without the permission of Hamilton’s heirs.  After the heirs regained the rights to the book, and eighty-three years after initially rejecting it, Little, Brown published it.

Finally, this: 

A reviewer wrote in the New York Times that Mary Hamilton “was a fairly ordinary woman, but one whom necessity and native grit teased to a grand self-possession and authority.”

The hell, you say.  This was no ordinary woman; this was one tall woman.