Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance*****

HillbillyElegyI confess I was miffed when I wasn’t granted a DRC for this title, and after reading a couple of reviews, I decided I could live without it. I began to wonder about my choice when I saw it hover on the best seller lists where it remains as of this writing nearly a year after its publication, But the clincher came when my younger daughter came to me and said that she had read it digitally and believed I would enjoy it. She said it had to do with the culture of mining families, and that the dedication was to the writer’s “Mamaw and Papaw”.

It hit me like a bolt of lightning.

A personal note of explanation: I am a grandmother myself now, and my own Mamaw and Papaw were both dead and gone by the time I learned that this was not a set of names that belonged to my family alone. I was the youngest among my cousins and siblings, and had somehow assumed that these grandparents’ names were the result of something said by one of the older kids when they were small. By the time I came along, they had left the mines of the rural Rust Belt and purchased a small working farm in central California. No one else I knew had grandparents with those names or had heard of them. Later my grandparents, aunt and uncle (who—I am not making this up—were an Aunt Sister and Uncle Brother) would relocate to the mountains of Southern Oregon, to the farthest outreaches, secret places up barely-there dirt roads that would make a survivalist happy. Neither California or Oregon is mentioned at all in Vance’s memoir, and so it makes me wonder just how far this culture has permeated across the USA.

Vance tells us that his memoir is particular to the culture of working class Scots-Irish people, primarily in the Appalachian Mountains. But of course, when one mine closes, miners follow the work, and so the culture has spread quite a long way. He himself didn’t grow up in Appalachia, because his grandparents had made a point of moving away from there when a factory opened in a small Southern Ohio town, and so that was where he spent most of his childhood. But the roots ran deep, and they often returned to the West Virginia area where most of the family remained.

The memoir itself is fascinating. His grandparents were enormously tough and tremendously loving. He recounts one experience in which a drug-addicted visitor appeared to be dying of a PCP overdose in the front room, and Mamaw ordered that the person be dragged to a nearby park, because “I don’t want him to die in my fucking house!”

Another time, the author’s immensely unstable mother had beaten JD, and Mamaw persuaded him to lie to the cops, who could never be a part of any solution to their family. Instead, once in the car, “We drove home in silence after Mamaw explained that if Mom lost her temper again, Mamaw would shoot her in the face.”

I am amazed at the similarities that exist between Vance’s culture and that of my father’s family. Over the years succeeding generations have become more educated and moved, for the most part, out of the tulles and to suburbs and cities. But many of the values and cultural nuances remain. And if this is true for me, a Seattle resident of nearly 30 years, how many others across the nation will recognize it as well? Perhaps this is part of the book’s tremendous success.

In closing I want to give a shout-out to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, the city where I grew up. Powell’s has a daily drawing for its reviewers, and each day someone wins a $100 gift certificate. My prize is what made it possible for me to purchase this glorious brand new, hard cover edition.

Highly recommended to those interested in the culture of Scots Irish mining families and their descendants, and to those that love excellent memoirs.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.