From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, his aunt, his uncle, his sister, and most of all his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
I really, really wanted to like this book. I got excited just reading the nine-page introduction and remember excitedly telling my husband about it on the day I started the memoir. Coming from humble beginnings myself, I felt like I would be able to relate to Vance’s story, although I grew up in rural Texas and North Carolina and not Kentucky/Ohio.
But really, the comparison ended there. Vance’s memoir begins with the story of his origins (his grandparents) and follows a pretty linear timeline. It was hard to feel empathy for his mother, who dragged her two kids in and out of so many relationships that I almost lost count of the men in Vance’s life. I believe she was married at least five times, and eventually became addicted to heroin. The figure he looked up to the most was his paternal grandmother, or “Mamaw,” as he called her, but I have to say I took issue with her language and demeanor. I understand she grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky and was married and pregnant before she was even the legal age to drive a car, but her “colorful” language and roughneck behavior did not strike me as someone who should be a role model for any young child. I can’t even repeat some of the things she said to family members and her grandchildren because I found them so offensive. This made it hard for me to read chapter after chapter of how wonderful “Mamaw” was and how his years living with her changed his life. (His grandparents never divorced but stopped living in the same residence by the time Vance was in his teens). I found myself wondering over and over what the point of the memoir is. The book has the subtitle “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” and while Vance did discuss the mentality of many of the working class that reside in the area he grew up in (there’s a sense of entitlement without the work ethic to back it up), I felt like he circled around the topic without giving any substance.
I do have a great deal of respect that Vance realized after being accepted to Ohio State University that he didn’t have the maturity he needed to successfully complete college, thus leading to an enlistment in the Marine Corps first instead. He also completed college pretty quickly once he began his courses, then heading off to Yale Law School. But I found my mind drifting during the chapters where he attended Yale. He didn’t seem to know why he wanted to attend law school, other than the fact that all the successful people he knew from his hometown were either doctors or lawyers, and he didn’t like blood. I don’t even think he is still a practicing lawyer, as the bio on the book jacket says he is now an investor in a venture capital firm. I read some other reviews before writing this one, trying to pinpoint why I found myself skimming the last chapter of the memoir by the end. I think one reviewer nailed it by saying she felt Vance’s prose lacked the color and authenticity one would expect from someone who grew up in the Rust Belt, with childhood memories of Appalachia. Vance went through the motion of detailing his story, but he never plumbs into the depths of how running from his mother on a country road, in fear for his life, or having to pay for her extended stay at a motel after she relapsed into drugs again, really made him feel. What the reader gets is a memoir that reads more like a term paper. And while that may be okay for some, it leaves the reader wanting.
Today I’m hosting author Sebastian Slovin in support of his touching memoir, Ashes in the Ocean: A Son’s Story of Living Through and Learning From His Father’s Suicide, during his blog tour with WOW! Women on Writing.
Here’s what you need to know about the book:
Vernon Slovin was a legend. He was one of the best swimmers in his home country of South Africa, and for a time in the world. He prided himself on being the best. The best in sports, business, and life. He had it all, a big home, athletic prestige, fancy clothes and cars, and a beautiful wife and family. Everything was going his way until it all came tumbling down. He lost everything, including his own life. In the wake of his suicide he left his wife and two young children.
In this riveting memoir, Vernon’s son, Sebastian Slovin chronicles his experience of living in the shadow of a suicide, and his journey out of the darkness and into the light. Slovin shares his quest to uncover why his father took his own life. A pilgrimage that led him around the world and eventually back to himself.
Ashes in the Ocean is a powerful story about facing one’s fears and choosing a different path.
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Nature Unplugged (March 2018)
About the Author:
Since he can remember, nature has been a central part of Sebastian’s life. He was fortunate to grow up in the beach community of La Jolla, California, and spent his childhood mixing it up in the ocean. As a young boy, he lost his father to suicide, which would later deeply inspire his path in life. As a young adult, he had the opportunity to travel extensively and experience many of the world’s great surf spots as a professional bodyboarder. Through his travel, Sebastian developed a deep love and appreciation for our natural world, and at the same time was drawn to the practice of yoga.
His love for yoga led him to study at Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, California, and his passion for nature eventually led him to pursue a BA in Environment and Natural Resource Conservation at San Diego State University. He also holds an MA in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego.
He lives with his wife Sonya in Encinitas, California. He and Sonya have a business called Nature Unplugged, which focuses on cultivating wellness through healthier relationships with technology and a deeper connection to nature. When he is not writing or working on Nature Unplugged, Sebastian enjoys swimming, bodysurfing, surfing, and stand-up paddling (pretty much all things) in the wild Pacific Ocean. Find Sebastian Online:
Amazon Author Profile: https://www.amazon.com/Sebastian-Slovin/e/B078XN8XZL
From the opening pages of Ashes in the Ocean, I was pulled into Sebastian Slovin’s personal and heartfelt memoir. My heart raced as I read through the description of a popular annual swimming race in California and how Vernon Slovin would deliberately enter the heat of the race with the younger competitors just to challenge himself. I could easily picture his beautiful young family cheering him on from the cliffs above. The scene is the perfect way to introduce the determined, physically fit man constantly seeking perfection and the acknowledgement that he was the best at anything he set his mind to.
There are some people who are born to be one with the water, and Vernon Slovin was one of them. He passed this legacy down to his son, Sebastian. The description of the ocean waves and pristine beaches in picturesque La Jolla, California throughout the book made me want to transport myself there—as did the later chapters featuring beaches in Australia and South Africa.
Because his father’s suicide occurred when he was only six years old, it was many years before Sebastian had the context in which to explore the dynamics in his father’s personality that would lead to such a catastrophic end. For years he and his mother and younger sister struggled to pick up the pieces, to survive without the sheltered and prosperous world Vernon Slovin had tried to insulate them in.
Although he was young when his father took his own life while staying with family in Australia, Sebastian grew up hesitant to discuss “the elephant in the room” with his mother for fear of opening up old wounds. He also feared, deep down, that because of his genetics and history of his father’s mental illness he too would have no choice but to succumb to a suicidal end.
Once in high school, though, Sebastian continued to cycle through the emotions many deal with after losing a loved one to suicide—confusion, guilt, and anger. To help process his lingering questions, Sebastian embarked on personal research project in the hopes of filling in the unanswered questions he had about his father’s life and death. With much of the dogged determination his own father had possessed, he met with his father’s former swim teammates, friends, and business partners. With each e-mail, conversation, and long-distance correspondence, he learned more and more about the competitive swimmer who was recruited from South Africa to compete at the college level in the United States.
Vernon took the same skills and drive that made him successful in swimming and translated that to his business life. During one of Sebastian’s interviews with one of his father’s friends, he started to understand that his father had an almost unhealthy obsession with “winning” and achieving his goals. He would shut out everything else while he worked to achieve them. Because of this obsession, he didn’t know what to do when he failed, which he ended up doing in his career as a stockbroker.
It’s clear both the legacy of his father and the shadow of his death affected Sebastian in more ways than one. He shared the same passion for water, and competed for many years in professional bodyboarding at beaches all over the world. When he discovered yoga, he became convinced he had to be the very best teacher and took all the certifications necessary to become a master instructor. It was only while sidelined after a serious hip surgery (where he re-injured himself after trying to get back in shape too quickly) that he realized he was following directly in his father’s footsteps once again.
Sebastian’s memoir is a thoughtful exploration of the deep ties we have to family and how we must shape our own destinies, regardless of what we think are the legacies left behind for us.