Monthly Book Review - July
I’m late to the game but I’ve finally read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I enjoyed both of these books immensely and not for completely different reasons. Believe or not, there were similarities between an adult memoir of growing up in Appalachia and a young adult partially-autobiographical novel based on growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State.
First, both of these books evoke strong emotions in their readers. I’m no exception—I will definitely be thinking about these books for a long time. They both touch on emotions that nearly everyone can relate to and, at the same time, offer a window into a part of our nation that many of us might not ever see or understand. That’s what great writing is all about. It breaks down barriers, opens our eyes, and quite possibly serves as a mirror back to us as we realize we have similar life experiences.
In fact, when I asked people what they thought about Hillbilly Elegy, many said that they felt like they could relate it to their own experience growing up. This came from people in all parts of the nation and both from rural and urban settings.
While that may be, you’re probably wondering how this story from Appalachia could have anything in common with a story set on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
The similarities fall into some general themes as I describe below (and even more that I don’t have the space to get into here.)
The extreme poverty in both of these locations is evident without even reading a page, but it seeps into the thread of the narrative like an additional character.
“Pajamas? Poor people don’t wear pajamas. We fall asleep in our underwear or blue jeans. To this day, I find the very notion of pajamas an unnecessary elite indulgence, like caviar or electric ice cube makers.” From Hillbilly Elegy
“Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” From The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Stabilizing Force of Grandparents/Grandmother and Big Sisters (SPOILER ALERT IN THIS SECTION)
Arnold Spirit, the main character in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is devastated when his grandmother is killed by a drunk driver. (See section on alcohol abuse below.) His sister is also eventually killed in an incident partially fueled by alcohol when drunk partygoers start a fire in her trailer. And while she had moved away from the reservation, she still played an important role in Arnold’s life.
J.D. Vance credits his eventual academic success to his MawMaw and PawPaw (grandparents) who provided the stability he needed away from his mother’s drug addiction and rotating cast of sometimes abusive boyfriends. When Vance loses both PawPaw and MawMaw even though he is not as young as Spirit, it is still devastating to him. His big sister was often his protector when his grandparents couldn’t be and Vance talks about them being close yet today.
Quick Purchase Links for Hillbilly Elegy:
Abuse of Alcohol/Drugs
The abuse of drugs in Hillbilly Elegy is almost as omnipresent as poverty. And the same goes for alcoholism in The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian.
Alexie once was once asked if as a Native American he felt a special pressure to address alcoholism and he replied, “Well, I mean, I’m an alcoholic, that’s what, you know, my family is filled with alcoholics. My tribe is filled with alcoholics. The whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it’s a stereotype, they’re in deep, deep denial…”
J.D. Vance talks about the history of alcoholism in his own family and explains his eyewitness account of growing drug abuse in his community. “I was on the ground floor of the opioid epidemic because I saw it happening with my mom before it had really reached crisis proportions. But in a lot of ways, she was just responding to the things that cause people to go and search for drugs in the first place. She was a person, I think, who carried around a lot of emotional baggage, a lot of emotional turmoil and hurt from her own childhood. And so she turned to drugs. But a lot of people have done the same, of course, in the past five or 10 years, which is why these addiction rates - which is why these overdose rates are so high in these communities.”
Academic Achievement as a Way Out
Both J.D. Vance and Arnold Spirit pursued education as a way to achieve their dreams, but this wasn’t easy as they were both weighed down by their backgrounds—Spirit at an off reservation “white” high school and J.D. Vance at Ohio State and eventually Yale Law School. Their stories of attempting to fit into an environment that there were not well-prepared for culturally are some of the most poignant in both stories. Indeed, these are also the most relatable scenes as we all have felt that like we didn’t know how to act at some point in our lives.
“Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other. It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn't pay well.” From The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
“social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.” From Hillbilly Elegy
Quick Purchase Links for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian:
The Attempts to Ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Let me say a thing or two or three about censorship. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an often-challenged book when schools attempt to add it to their curricula. This makes me sad. I think banning or censoring a book stops the discussion that might have taken place. Every single scene that might be considered objectionable in this book is a lost learning opportunity when the book is locked away. What kind of message is being sent to our teens when a school caves to this pressure and removes a book like this from its classrooms? The message is . . . we don’t think you’re smart enough to discern the subtleties of this text; we think you need to be protected from difficult ideas and difficult situations that make you reason and think for yourselves. If only those seeking to ban this book could trust the youth they are seeking to protect, they might be surprised at the discussion that ensues.
Obviously, I highly recommend both of these titles. I would love to hear from you if you've read either of these. I'm especially curious if you use Sherman Alexie's book in your classroom or have teen who has had it as part of a course at their high school.
Happy Reading, Valerie