Three Good Books

Three books that I read last year tell stories that are strikingly similar. Two – Educated by Tara Westover and Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance – are memoirs, while the third – The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah – is a novel. In each, the protagonist manages to overcome a childhood of deep, rural poverty and a terribly troubled, proudly antisocial family to become a highly accomplished adult. 

All three are very compelling stories; they give us windows into pathologies – mental health problems, drug addictions and PTSD in the three of them respectively, and extreme intra-family violence in all three – that combine with poverty in ways that conspire mightily against happy outcomes. Westover’s and Hannah’s books feature abusive, irrational fathers who obsessively prepare for the end times; the heroines’ (assuming that the narrator of a memoir, in the case of Educated, can be so characterized) victories are achieved through educations that they have to fight for. In contrast, military service provides Vance’s first path out of the resentful, shockingly dysfunctional world in which he was raised.  

My sense is that despite the books’ thematic similarities, the kinds of critics who choose to evaluate all literature through pinkish lenses – and there are many – see two of these books as being laudable, the third, not. The women’s stories are viewed as feminist celebrations of independence and strength and as ferocious critiques of people who believe in small-government. Vance’s tale, in contrast, has been disparaged for its supposedly old-fashioned emphasis on raising oneself by one’s bootstraps – and I doubt that such pink-lensed critics see Vance’s having served in the military as a particularly praiseworthy step, even if it did ultimately enable him to achieve the more prestigious (in their eyes) result of attending Yale Law School.   

For me, though, these stories are not really about achieving Success as much as they are about family intimacy, trust and self-definition. They are very personal stories about individuals who tear themselves painfully from the ways in which they were taught to see the world, and from the people who taught them those lessons, and come to see things very differently. The victories they achieve are, for each of them, shadowed by their knowledge of the family members and the relationships they left behind. These shadows are what made the stories real to me.

Notwithstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed all three books, I wonder whether their popularity stems in part from a desire by the reading public to find signs that social mobility is still possible even though there is plenty of evidence that the American underclass is falling ever-farther behind. All three stories are about people who, as children, could have been rudely described as poor white trash, but who overcome innumerable hurdles on their roads to Success.

Of all our freedoms, the ability to define ourselves is the most fundamental – in a sense it is the sum of the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Millions of immigrants have come here because they were not satisfied with how their native lands defined them; Americans have traditionally reveled in the idea that each of us can become whoever we want to be, and our history is full of stories of people who made themselves anew.

I read all three of these books as quintessentially American stories, and see their popularity (in spite of the carping by progressive critics about Hillbilly Elegy) as a hope-inducing sign that the freedom to (re-)define ourselves – and all that freedom entails – remains an important part of our culture.

It’s on us to ensure that the reality of our personal freedoms continues to enable such aspirations.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to Three Good Books

  • Ron Cypers  says:

    I’ve missed your posts. Welcome back and thank you.

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