Monthly Archives: February 2018

Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Little Fires EverywhereShaker Heights was founded on rules and order, and Elena Richardson is one of its most fervent native daughters. From the time she was a little girl, she had planned her life carefully, firm in her beliefs of right and wrong, always following what she thought was correct. She married well, had four children—two boys and two girls, maintained a small-town journalistic career that allowed her to put her family first, and made sure that she and her family could hold up their heads as models of success and respectability. When Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrived in town, Mrs. Richardson generously allowed them to live in her rental property at reduced rates. Nothing warmed her heart more than to do good deeds for the deserving poor.

Mia is an artist. Whenever she gets an idea for a project, she settles into a town, takes photographs, turns them into the vision in her head, ships them off to her agent, and packs up again. This time, though, she has promised Pearl that they would stay longer for her sake. She is surprised and uneasy when her daughter seems to fall in love with the Richardsons’ wealthy, bourgeois lifestyle. They have all the material things and experiences of privileged teens. Pearl is even thrilled to watch The Jerry Springer show on the couch with them every afternoon. The Richardsons are teaching Pearl to be everything that Mia never wanted.

Under the polished surface of Shaker Heights’ upstanding community, though, there are secrets, and as a journalist, Mrs. Richardson has the means to ferret them out. It is not right, after all, that the person one helped out so long ago does not consider herself to be in one’s debt forever. It is not right that newcomers, and especially foreigners, should believe that they have the same rights as one of the fine citizens of Shaker Heights. However, even though Mrs. Richardson can measure out her breakfast cereal every day, she cannot get a grip on her vexing youngest daughter, Izzy, who seems to be completely dazzled by that bohemian artist, Mia.

Celeste NgCeleste Ng writes a story of two generations in a rigid little world colliding with outside ideas and sojourners. Mothers and children are locked together with iron bonds that they simultaneously tighten and push against. Izzy is struggling to break free of her mother’s control and her siblings’ scorn, but her rebellion is limited to a young girl’s resources. Those resources turn out to be incredibly powerful. The suffocating community produces tragic decisions and secrets kept locked inside. There is no redemption here, no confession or forgiveness. As Mia tells one of the teens, there is just pain that you must carry.

I loved this novel for two reasons. The first is that I adore deep explorations of the artistic process. I have taken enough art classes to know that I cannot draw, and I have struggled through enough music lessons to know that I am not gifted. However, I am perfectly happy to be a devotee. Stories of artists passionate about their craft entrance me, so Mia’s evolution as a photographer, and then as someone who used photography to create meaningful works of art, was absorbing and fascinating. I rejoiced with every hint of her success.

Secondly, though, I empathize so closely with anyone trying to be free of others’ control. As a compliant child, I sometimes feel as if I have spent my adult life trying to escape the Mrs. Richardsons of the world, breaking through the walls of all those little boxes. And there are so many boxes! There were scenes in the novel where I could barely breathe, waiting for someone—anyone!— to fight back and triumph.

Although the ending is realistically complicated, there is hope that everyone has grown, and that the small steps down a new road— a road that was not even on the map before— will continue until each person finds freedom: freedom to let go, freedom to change, freedom to burn it all down and start again.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, although it is available right now. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly ElegyJ.D.’s family may have lived in Ohio, but they never lost their Kentucky roots. Jackson County, Kentucky, was deep in the hills and hollers, where Scots-Irish descendants were poor, clannish, and tough. Farming was impossible, and mining was miserable, so when the steel mills up north were booming and the owners traveled down to Kentucky for cheap labor, often whole families and communities moved from their mountains into small mill towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, transplanting their culture along with their workers.

Vance’s mother was a drug addict who introduced her children to a new father figure every year, so J.D. and his siblings and half-siblings depended on Mamaw and Papaw for stability. His grandmother was the rock in a swirl of violence and addiction, a source of unconditional love and support. At the same time, she was tough as nails and cussed a blue streak. She thought it was hilarious when her littlest grandchildren imitated her horrible language. His uncles taught him what it was to be a man, which included treating women like trash. When other men treated the women in your own family poorly, though, there were no limits to the required revenge. Feuds were honorable, and education was for rich folks.

Breaking out of this insular world was difficult, but with his grandmother’s help, J.D. made it to college, and then even to Yale Law School. He saw that the people who had happy marriages and successful careers did not share his culture’s values or lifestyle, and he was thoughtful enough to want to figure out why. Hillbilly Elegy is an examination of how one group of people can destroy themselves, clinging to defensive habits that don’t translate well into the twenty-first century, being misunderstood by public policy makers and then hurt by the policies that are meant to help them, and escaping a hopeless life with alcohol and drug addiction, which only serve to exacerbate an already imbedded tendency to violence.

Merriam-Webster defines an elegy as “a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation, especially for one who is dead.” Vance hopes to bring this huge, white, working-class population out into public view, since it is largely misunderstood by the rest of the country. The Scots-Irish immigrant culture stretches from the hills of Alabama and Georgia, up through the Appalachians into New York state. They do not identify at all with the white elite in the Northeast and are often ignored by pollsters and other observers of American culture. Although they had originally been hardworking people, generations of despair have led them to dependence on government assistance, even when work is available.

I was confused at first by the term “Scots-Irish,” until my brother, who understands All Things Historical, explained that our Irish or Scottish ancestors are not part of this group. Our Irish Catholic great-grandfather moved from the Republic of Ireland to New England, where most of his fellow countrymen settled. Our Scottish grandmother did the same. The people of Appalachia are Protestants from Northern Ireland, originally settled there from Scotland, having an entirely different culture from the Catholics in the south of Ireland.

David and I lived in eastern Kentucky for five years or so, and the initial realization that the population is uniformly white is jarring to those of us who are used to living in the deep South. We were also startled by the iron-clad class division. Once you leave the small towns and travel east into the mountains, the poverty seems universal and unrelenting. Since the hollers are barely accessible, there is no infrastructure to help businesses to reach the rest of the country. As outsiders, we had friends among the missionaries who moved there to help the native people with economic development, and we were witness to a steady stream of politicians and activists who would put on their best folksy act during a photo op on a rickety front porch. Whether they truly cared about the people or only cared about their own careers is debatable. Nothing ever changed.

Hillbilly Elegy Coming HomeJ.D. Vance is currently having an on-again/ off-again conversation about running for public office. He does have a unique perspective on many issues of the working class, such as welfare dependence, employment, health care, addiction, and education. Most of this book contains his fascinating memoir, but the last thirty or so pages present his conclusions about his culture, and even how his “outsider” wife has helped him to recognize and change his own childhood patterns. He has an important story for all Americans to hear.

I passed Hillbilly Elegy on to my husband when I was finished, and our library system has dozens of copies in every possible format that stay completely checked out. In the meantime, Ron Howard plans to direct a movie based on the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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