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Aug 28, 2017 09:28AM ● By Michael Harris

The title of this month’s book review column comes from two recent memoirs by remarkable men, one a hillbilly and the other a “crime” (to be explained later), who overcame poverty to become successful and admired individuals. The hillbilly is J.D. Vance, raised in poverty in the hollers of Appalachia. The "crime" is Trevor Noah, raised in poverty in apartheid South Africa. Born on opposite sides of the globe, these two men share much in common.


J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis opened my eyes to the plight of poor white Americans who live in squalor and despair in the coal mining regions of our country. J.D.'s grandparents moved from rural Kentucky to the Rust Belt of Ohio to “escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma,” so common in their part of the country.


But try as they may, they couldn't overcome their upbringing. Alcoholism was a major factor. J.D.’s mother was an addict who couldn't raise her children. Her problems were complicated further by the numerous husbands and boyfriends she “discarded like Dixie cups, and endless screaming matches, bone-chilling threats, violence, and dizzying disorder” her children had to endure.


J.D.’s memoir focuses on his relationship with his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, who actually raised him. Mamaw was "as fouled mouth as Tony Soprano and nearly as dangerous,” but showed J.D. unconditional love and the nurturing that instilled him with grit and determination. It took these strong parental figures, a combination of "tough love and personal responsibility" and his own intellect, to overcome his upbringing, graduate from Yale Law School, and become a successful and productive parent and lawyer.


The lessons of this book are especially important as we try to understand why so many poor whites are struggling.  For a more extensive look at their problem, I recommend White Trash. The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg.


I'm not much of a fan of late-night TV talk shows. They come on way past my bedtime.  But I have seen snippets of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah on YouTube and Facebook. He's extremely clever and very funny. So I was drawn to his memoir, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, when I saw it on the New York Times bestseller list.


It is an amazing story of a young man who was born into the worst possible circumstance in apartheid South Africa and becomes a megastar. The title comes from the fact that his mother is black and his father is white, and it was a crime in South Africa for different races to marry or comingle.


Abandoned by his father, Trevor was raised by his poor but stern working mom who understood her values and conveyed them to her son. As a youth, whether selling pirated CDs or buying items on sale and then selling them illegally at a mark up, Trevor was always in and out of trouble. But his mother made sure that he learned lessons from every one of his transgressions. A stellar example happened when Trevor got arrested for driving someone else's car that the police thought he had stolen. (The white South African police had no use for Trevor, who was of mixed race, and his explanation or sense of humor.)


His mother would not post bail and made him rot in jail for a week before coming to his rescue. The lesson was learned. You can either go to school and get an education or remain a kid on the streets and end up in jail. Fortunately, Trevor chose the former, and the rest is history.



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