The Tiger’s Wife: Book Review

The Tiger's Wife. A novel by Téa Obreht.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

Haunted Family Histories and a Tiger’s Wife

Téa Obreht blurs the line between reality and mythology in The Tiger’s Wife, spanning the majority of a man’s life. That man? The narrator’s grandfather whose influence on her life is profound. Set against the back drop of multiple wars which leave indelible marks on this novel’s diverse cast of characters (including several doctors, a tiger, a taxidermist, a mute girl, a deathless man who judges when others will die, among many others).

The main story line introduces us to Natalia, a young doctor trying to find her way in the dust of the latest war. She has been guided her entire life by her grandfather, a stolid aging doctor with somewhat eccentric routines, including taking his granddaughter to visit the zoo to see the tigers and carrying an old copy of The Jungle Book everywhere he goes.

Natalia learns of her grandfather’s death while traveling to deliver vaccines to children in a rural area of the country and grapples with her guilt of keeping his secret from her grandmother and mother as well as not being with him. Alongside the narrator’s struggle, the twining tales of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife reveal themselves weaving a melancholy story of regret, guilt, hope, and loyalty.

Modern Myth Telling

Tiger’s Wife

I have rarely read such an original attempt at crafting modern myth, fable, fairytale or whatever you want to call the three storylines that this novel contains. Obreht masterfully spins what feels like a timeless tale, as timeless as any story written by the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault. The titular tale, The Tiger’s Wife is a novel that could stand on its own. In fact, my one complaint about the book is really that the conclusion made me feel like the grandfather could have been more minor character than main character to the tiger’s wife’s impact on the story overall.

The Tiger’s Wife, so called by superstitious villagers driven to desperation by the threat of war at their border, is an enigma from beginning to end. She is the child bride of the village’s butcher, sold to him when his bride to be elopes under his nose and her desperate father tricks the butcher into marrying his youngest, mute child instead.

The butcher, feeling betrayed and trapped and grappling with his sexuality, becomes violent with the girl. Far away from family and surrounded by the suspicious villagers, she must endure alone. Until she meets the young man, Natalia’s grandfather as a child, who befriends the girl after catching her feeding a tiger who had struck terror into the village lately. The tiger, of course, being the tiger in the Tiger’s Wife, is an escaped zoo animal accustomed to a life of ease and scared from his home by its bombing and starved by his inability to fend for himself in the wild. His attachment to the wife of the butcher is not unusual, except her lack of fear towards the beast.

The grandfather and Tiger’s Wife bond over the tiger, the equivalent of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (the tome he carries near to his dying days in his jacket) to the child. The fate of the Tiger’s Wife is integral to the grandfather’s story, his guilt for his betrayal, despite his ignorance, scars him for life. This is evident in his continued fascination with the tigers, the book he carries. He has periodic meetings with who he calls the deathless man, a mysterious man who appears to never age and who cannot be killed no matter how earnest the attempt.

The Deathless Man

The deathless man is the second myth/fable/fairytale woven throughout the story. He is the nephew of Death, cursed by a betrayal to his job of reading the cups of people to tell them whether they are dying. The grandfather’s adult life is tracked by these meetings with the deathless man, the meetings always set in a dreamy kind of disbelief.

The deathless man offers insight to the grandfather on death throughout these meetings, revealing he cannot die, and that this is the aforementioned curse. Being a doctor, the grandfather is not unfamiliar with death as a concept, even without his history with the Tiger’s Wife. The connection is truly made by the identity of the deathless man’s wife to the grandfather and deathless man’s choices on those around him. His disobedience touched on the lives of the taxidermist and butcher, the grandfather and Natalia. So many threads in the tapestry of the deathless man’s life.

Flawless Prose

The Tiger’s Wife is an impressive creation. The writing is simply stunning, the descriptions, word choice, originality…truly one of the better books I have read in a while. Being a collector of literary prizes this is not wholly surprising after the fact. I did not expect to enjoy the story as much as I did. I picked up this book after reading about its receipt of the Orange Prize for Fiction in an issue of Writer’s Digest. I have read a couple of other winning novels and really enjoyed them so thought I would give this one a try.

The author exhibits such control over her language and storytelling overall. A difficult thing to do with three tales that must come together by the end. Again the modern myth making was one of my favorite things about this novel. If you love language above all else, this is a book for you.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

More Book Reviews

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Echo North: Book Review

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer.

A Good Faith Effort for Echo North

Echo North looked like an appealing retelling of the Norse tale and one of my favorite fairy tales, East of the Sun, West of the Moon. I quickly added it to my Amazon cart, anticipating a quick, enjoyable read during my maternity leave. The book did not disappoint on being a quick read.

The retelling was done fairly well, just enough originality threaded in to keep it from feeling like every other retelling. It is no East by Edith Pattou but the author made a good effort as an homage. There were some great elements to this story, but the author fell short of fully realizing her story’s potential. Some characters were memorable, but the important ones often felt flat and gray.

[Spoilers Below]

Fairy Tale Retelling

Echo North reimagines the fairy tale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon, with influences from Beauty and the Beast and Tam Lin. I love a good fairy tale retelling, I’m a huge Robin McKinley fan. In some important ways, Echo North was respectful of the genre of YA retellings. However, the YA fairy tale retellings market peaked several years ago and the burden fell on the author to justify this book’s existence so far past the height of the genre’s relevance. While the book was moderately enjoyable, it was also disappointing.

Echo North Highs

What made the book stand out the most was what felt like an underdeveloped plot twist the author just realized at the end of writing the book (and didn’t bother returning to the beginning and middle to fully capitalize on). Although there is something to be said of subtly and surprise twists, this was so out of the blue it was nearly laughable. As such, the dual timelines could have made the book so special had the author taken more time to develop it.

Another high was the main character’s appearance. I like how her angst about her appearance, and the superstition her appearance ignited in those around her, drove the story.

Echo North Lows

Hal, the love interest, is probably the dullest romantic character I’ve ever read. I felt no chemistry between him and Echo and wasn’t necessarily rooting for his rescue by the end of the novel. So Echo could have saved herself 10 years and gone straight home for all the affection they showed each other. There were no heart pounding moments and no knuckle biting romantic scenes that justified Echo’s feelings or actions towards Hal.

Mokosh is perhaps the most underserved character the author introduced. She was interesting, mysterious with a depth I envied for the love interest. Unfortunately the author let this beautiful character’s story fizzle out with no real resolution.

My Rating

3/5 Stars

More Book Reviews

Daisy Jones & The Six

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Daisy Jones & The Six: Book Review

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones & The Six Book Cover

Daisy Jones & The Six: Not All About the Music

I should preface this review by saying that I am not a huge fan of 70’s rock. I don’t hate it or avoid it, I am just very lazy when it comes to finding music. While I can appreciate the classics, I am usually content listening to Top 40 hits on the radio. Daisy Jones & The Six (check out the Goodreads synopsis) does not require its readers to love 70’s rock or rock music in general.

This book is about more than rock and roll. (Rock n’ roll?) This is a story about faith, faith in others and faith in ourselves. It is a love triangle but not the obnoxious kind. There are no clear answers and regardless of your personal opinion on Billy Dunne’s choice at the end, nobody leaves totally satisfied. The heartbreak bleeds through to the end, happy ending or no.

Story Format

The book is written as an oral history. Instead of paragraphs or chapters in one POV, each character is speaking to a narrator who is interviewing them. The identity of the narrator revealed until the end was somewhat surprising. I did not see it coming. The author’s choice to write the story as oral history interviews makes sense once the narrator’s identity is revealed. It adds a layer to the story that a traditional past tense 3rd person POV or 1st person POV would not have provided.

The Dunnes

When I picked this book up I had no idea the story would include themes of family or parental sacrifices. When we meet Billy Dunne, he seems like the quintessential rocker, ambitious, dedicated to the sound, shaggy and into drugs. The author throws Camila into his life and she changes the story’s trajectory. Camila is Billy’s serious girlfriend pre-breakout and he marries her once he signs a record contract. Billy is not a family man, he is a man who marries a family woman.

Camila is not a hero. She is a fighter. She is a settler. Camila loves her children more than herself and more than her husband. When he cheats on her and reveals his drug addiction, she refuses to leave him or let him leave her. Again, this is not heroic, but I respected Camila’s tenacity and her continued faith in Billy. Far more women are right to leave their spouses who act in this way, especially when children are involved.

“I think you have to have faith in people before they earn it. Otherwise it’s not faith, right?” Camila says of her commitment to Billy and that defines her place in this story.

Daisy Jones

This is not a book solely about the relationship between Billy and Camila or his addiction and struggle to remain clean.

Daisy Jones is a headstrong, overly talented, under ambitious teen when we meet her. Gorgeous and born into privilege, Daisy has never had to work hard for things she wanted, except her parents’ genuine attention and affection. She is invisible to them unless they need a prop to get ahead professionally. Daisy benefits from a series of opportunities that leads her to meet The Six, including lead singer Billy Dunne.

Daisy, addicted to drugs from a young age, shares the same addiction problems as Billy. This is one of the things they bond over, eventually.

Billy and Daisy’s relationship is complicated. There is attraction, chemistry, in the beginning. Billy’s resistance to their chemistry makes him angry. He keeps his distance as long as possible, knowing inevitably they would end up in a position where that sexual attraction would overpower their professional relationship.

It does and we get a heartbreakingly close yet so far kiss scene when Billy and Daisy finally come together to write the album for a collaboration arranged by their record label. The narrator touts the album as one that would change rock and roll forever.

The Six

The rest of The Six are not satellite characters. They are integral to the story, the band’s success, and the band’s ultimate downfall.

Graham Dunne is Billy’s devout younger brother and band co-founder. He falls head over heels for the band’s keyboardist.

Karen, the keyboardist, remains steadfastly independent throughout the story.

Eddie and Pete are brothers. Eddie is a guitarist, constantly feeling he is competing with Billy Dunne but never admitting there is no competition. Pete is the drummer with no real devotion to the band and a girlfriend back home he stays faithful too.

Warren is the band’s carefree comedic relief, there for the music and the drugs and never taking himself seriously.

The Rise

The Six sign to a record label and release an album prior to teaming up with Daisy Jones. They experience success, largely thanks to Billy’s on-stage charisma and devotion to songwriting.

Teddy, The Six’s manager and Billy’s mentor/father figure, hooks them up with Daisy Jones who released a smaller album of covers prior. Even he could not have foreseen the meteoric rise of The Six with Billy and Daisy’s chemistry.

Billy and Daisy record a single for The Six’s second album and tour with Daisy as their opening act. The tour is a particular struggle for Billy, freshly clean and Camila is pregnant with twins and with a toddler in tow.

Daisy staunchly continues on her path to destruction, drugged out and dating a shady agent who keeps her too doped up to realize she is unhappy with him. But Billy and Daisy on stage when they sing their single is magic.

Those moments where they are together singing cements Daisy’s involvement in the next album and the band’s new name, Daisy Jones & The Six.

The Fall

Despite fame, expanded tour dates, rocketing album sales, and merchandise, Billy and Daisy’s raw attraction causes discord off-stage. They come close to an affair while writing The Six’s third album but Billy pulls away. Daisy realizes she can’t have Billy and Billy realizes he wishes he could have Daisy.

He goes home to his wife and children and the love triangle collapses.

Throughout the relationship drama, the band members feel auxiliary to the band’s success. Billy blows Graham off when he approaches him with an emergency. Graham reevaluates his relationship with his brother and his commitment to the band. Pete confides in Eddie that he is leaving after the third album’s tour to marry his girlfriend and settle down.

Daisy’s drug addiction is the final nail in the coffin for Daisy Jones & The Six. Daisy must look at herself honestly after eloping with an Italian prince she barely knows.

Camila disillusions Daisy of any final hope she may have had of Billy returning her affections.

The album goes platinum and the band breaks up.

Final Thoughts

This was the first genuinely enjoyable book I have read in awhile. A book that is just fun AND good. It wasn’t life-changing. The insights weren’t original necessarily, and the characters won’t be enshrined somewhere for all time. Daisy Jones & The Six is a quick read and enjoyable. Sometimes, that’s all we need from fiction.

My Rating

4/5 Stars

More Book Reviews

Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Reading Goals 2019: Microhistories & Writing Reference

2018

My 2018 Goodreads Reading Goal was set at 20 books. I have to this point read 23 books and I am *hoping* to read another 2 before the ball drops on January 1st.

What about 2019?

I have started to think about what I want to set my reading goal for 2019. As a working mother, reading can be a super difficult thing to carve out time for. I found myself sneaking in pages during bath time, after bedtimes, and during breaks at work. That equaled about 23-25 books for me in 2018.

Granted, I did not prioritize reading over certain other areas of my life, like Netflix binging and social media which can seriously eat up huge amounts of your free time without realizing.

My greatest obstacle ended up not being a mother of a toddler or a full-time academic librarian, but rather a general disregard and disrespect for reading over non-soul fulfilling activities.

With all that in mind, I am hoping to increase my reading goal for 2019 from 20 books to 30 books coupled with a New Year’s Resolution to watch less TV and spend less time on social media and my smartphone.

What’s in my TBR pile?

My specific reading goals include reading more microhistories which are non-fiction books which focus on a very specific historical topic like Salt: A World History.

This is in connection with my writing goals for 2019, which include completing all drafts of my WIP, Changeling, which I have written about and shared pieces of frequently here in the past, get through the second draft of another WIP, Foxface, which was my 2018 National Novel Writing Month project, and write the first draft of at least two more story ideas I have been incubating the past year, an adult literary fiction novel titled The Gospel of Eve and a YA Fantasy tentatively titled Daring based on the myth of Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

I also want to read more writing reference type books, obviously to compliment my writing goals. I have many in my TBR pile I have stocked up on over the last year so I really want to get through all of those.

My Owned TBR Writing References:

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

Time to Write by Kelly L. Stone

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry

Writing & Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going

Paper Hearts by Beth Revis

That list will undoubtedly grow as I buy/check out other writing references through the year. My favorite writing reference author is James Scott Bell and I have read at least two of his other references in the past year, he has many more, which I will probably add to this list soon.

Setting goals and getting ish done!

I think, and this is certainly not an independent thought, that setting goals and intentions is the best way to ensure you achieve those goals. These are concrete titles, numbers, and deadlines. There is accountability in that and that is so important for adult-type learners (Hello, twenty-nine, I see you creeping up on me).

Question-time!

What are your reading/writing goals for 2019?

Do you prefer to set goals/resolutions each year or do you set non-traditional time frames (two years, six months)? Do you set time-frames at all?

Extras

"Why try to cheat the Gods out of a game I am prepared to win?" An excerpt from Foxface on abookishmama.com
The last line of my 2018 NaNoWriMo project!

Favorite Quote from Today’s Writing Session (NaNoWriMo 2018 Project: Foxface)

I offer you everything I have, which is nothing material, but the use of my hands, the workings of my mind, and the powers imbued in me by my creators. Besides that, I give you my heart, the heart of a man who once knew love, then loss, and sacrificed it all to give me life. An excerpt from Foxface, my 2018 NaNoWriMo project.

NaNo ’18: New Projects, Old Projects, and This Crazy Thing Called Life

I have been MIA lately and I am not ashamed.

Between work and the projects I have going on and having a toddler, husband, and household to run blogging is pretty low on the totem pole of importance.

What I have been doing, however, is working on the second draft of my Camp NaNo ’18 project, Changeling. That is an experience. I have been carving out an hour or so every few days to work on it.

After my first read through of the first draft I made notes and the second draft is implementation of those notes. This is essentially just me deleting large chunks of the first draft and writing entirely new scenes to make things connect and make a little more sense than it did before. Besides some glaring plot holes in draft #1, I am also changing place names (turning real place names into fantasy names to give myself more creative license in future drafts), and fixing obvious grammatical errors.

So that has been an experience. I am not done with the edits and I am already marking places where I need to return in the 3rd draft and do some major revisions.

Overall, progressing though slowly.

I am hoping to finish the edits before November 1st so I can begin a new project with slightly less guilt.

Foxface: A Novel. Justice is for the rich, for everyone else there is revenge. Author name: PhantasyCreator90. NaNo 2018.
NaNo signature banner featuring NaNo ’18 project.

As always, the new project is shiny and I am itching to move on. But I think Changeling is worth suffering over so I am committed to the revisions.

The shiny new project is a little different of a vibe from Changeling. For one, the shiny new project is steampunk so right away the time and setting will be vastly different. Tech will play a big role in it which is a challenge.

I also think the characters I am writing are vastly different and it will be interesting to get inside this new creation’s head and soul and see what I can find there. Foxface has suffered much more than Viviane and Rose (Changeling‘s main characters) and she has a score to settle. From my preliminary visits with her, she doesn’t seem content to let anything go.

Foxface, like Changeling, requires a lot of research into the historically relevant aspects of the story. Its heavily inspired by the politics of the Scandinavian region during the 1800’s-1900’s and the oppression of the Samí people in Norway. But its steampunk so its alt-history and I can take a few freedoms with some of the details.

I obviously like challenging myself with these history inspired stories. I think the context of certain events in human history just adds such an interesting significance to fiction. I like grounding my dreams in reality, I guess. Not even sure that means anything.

Anyway, that is the short of my creative projects. I have been sneaking in some reading time where I can. I think since my last review (Girl, Wash Your Face) I have finished seven more books:

  1. A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Outlander Series) by Diana Gabaldon-3 Stars
  2. Troubleshooting Your Novel: Essential Techniques for Identifying and Solving Manuscript Problems by Steven James-5 Stars
  3. Mama Gone Geek: Calling On My Inner Science Nerd to Help Navigate the Ups and Downs of Parenthood by Lynn Brunelle-3 Stars
  4. Arabella of Mars (Adventures of Arabella Ashby Series) by David D. Levine-3 Stars
  5. An Echo in the Bone (Outlander Series) by Diana Gabaldon-3 Stars
  6. 1984 by George Orwell-5 Stars
  7. Crooked Kingdom (Six of Crows Series) by Leigh Bardugo-5 Stars

I should have been writing reviews for these books but honestly my mental health has not lent itself to a desire to do that. Taking anti-depressants regularly keeps me sane but it puts a noticeable damper on my ability to write, or write something I feel comfortable sharing.

But I am currently reading three books and I am hoping I will be able to write some meaningful reviews for those. Check my Goodreads if you’re interested in what I’m currently read.

Enough of that, back to work!

Girl, Wash Your Face: Book Review

Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies about Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be by Rachel Hollis

This book, Girl, Wash Your Face, brought me to tears so many times.

I have been absent from this blog for a bit. The reason for that is I felt burnt out and discouraged when I didn’t get the feedback I wanted from my past blog posts. I had also taken a step back from writing my novel (draft two) for the same reasons. I recognize that that is not productive or conducive to establishing a career as a writer. If I want to pursue that path I need to push through.

Rachel Hollis was an integral part of that motivation during this period.

Writing From the Heart

Hollis writes her truth and is unashamed of doing so. I love that. Sure, I could not relate to everything she spoke about or the way she approached certain topics but she openly acknowledged that her truth may not resonate with everyone. She offered her stories anyway, knowing she might experience pushback or complaints of alienation. This book is not about prioritizing her beliefs above others but offering her perspective so others experiencing similar things can take what they want and apply it to their own lives.

Hits Close to Home

Hollis delivers several instances of advice that hit so close to home to what I was (and am) struggling with. There are other personal things she hit on that I struggle with but the most impactful impressions were those relating to my professional goals. As a working mother, I felt like the advice she gave meant so much more. Had anyone else delivered these specific messages, I may have ignored it, scoffed even. How could someone who didn’t understand the pressures of my life tell me how to accomplish anything in my limited free time?

Hollis shares so many experiences with me as a working mother. She struggles with guilt for choosing to spend any time away from her children, she’s a small-town girl who grew up in a conservative environment. She’s a wife. I could connect with her and believe that the advice she gave was meant in earnest. Not only that but if she could accomplish all she has maybe I can do it too.

Permission

The biggest takeaway from Hollis’ book was the idea of giving myself permission to pursue my dream. Permission to fail, to rise, to face criticism and keep going anyway. Trying to do anything big, working towards a goal, these are scary and uncomfortable things. Its always going to be easier to not pursue them. But you are giving up the potential for so much happiness and fulfillment. Hollis demonstrated how that bravery paid off in her life. She gives me hope. I feel this atmosphere of support in her narration and in the community she has created online.

Boss Babe

Rachel Hollis runs The Chic Site, a lifestyle type website where she shares recipes, fashion inspiration, travel blogs, and general advice for women. The site combines her experience as a mother, wife, and Boss so make sure to check that out and get to know this fantastic author.

5/5 Stars

More Book Reviews

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia: Book Review and Hillbilly Elegy Comparison

Hillbilly Elegy

A Court of Wings and Ruin

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia: Book Review and Hillbilly Elegy Comparison

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

Publisher’s Summary

In 2016, headlines declared Appalachia ground zero for America’s “forgotten tribe” of white working class voters. Journalists flocked to the region to extract sympathetic profiles of families devastated by poverty, abandoned by establishment politics, and eager to consume cheap campaign promises. What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is a frank assessment of America’s recent fascination with the people and problems of the region. The book analyzes trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia, presents a brief history of Appalachia with an eye toward unpacking Appalachian stereotypes, and provides examples of writing, art, and policy created by Appalachians as opposed to for Appalachians. The book offers a must-needed insider’s perspective on the region.

The Review

The Appalachians Can Save Themselves

Elizabeth Catte is an East Tennessee native, with a Ph.D. in public history, which she received from Middle Tennessee State University, and co-owns a historical consulting company. Not only is she professionally suited to write about the state of the Appalachian region today in relation to the history that fed our current issues, but she is a native and is intimate with the struggles of the residents in the poor, coal region of the Appalachians.

This book was short, a quick read, and that is really my only criticism and the reason this book is 4 stars instead of 5. I would have loved a longer book so she could go into greater detail on some of the topics she discusses. However, I understand the need to publish her book quickly on the tail of Hillbilly Elegy so that she could capitalize on its success and the conversation it ignited. It is incredibly difficult to get the mainstream media and average American to care about subjects such as this or be receptive to correcting inaccurate and painful stereotypes that Vance invoked in his disturbingly bestselling memoir.

An Intelligent Woman’s Worth is Far Above Rubies

As a historian and history consultant, Catte knows her history of the region and is a credible source for relaying that information to her readers. She takes the responsibility, where Vance negligently fell short, of setting the stage of Appalachia as it was developed through the years. Catte talks about the industries that took from the region, the evolution of local workers’ rights and struggles through this time, and most importantly, the assertion that Appalachia (as an immense region) is not wholly Scots-Irish or white.

She accurately describes the diversity of the region. Catte aligns Appalachian needs with modern issues. She shuts down the notion of Other that so many paint Appalachians, that they genetically differ from the rest of the nation. We don’t. To paint us that way, Catte explains, is to promote eugenics (“the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”-From Dictionary.com). The idea of preventing the breeding of Appalachians through sterilization was promoted by prominent spokespeople from the area and beyond during the 1960s-70s. Eugenics was a favored idea of Nazis, FYI.

4/5 Stars

Hillbilly Elegy Versus What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

Catte’s book is obviously a direct and scathing rebuttal to J. D. Vance’s Hillybilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. That is critical in understanding her position while writing this book. I felt similarly enraged and misrepresented after reading Vance’s “memoir.” When reading his memoir, I felt somebody local to the region needed to step up and refute his claims. A better person could not have stepped up to the plate. I will thank God every day for women like Elizabeth Catte and her little (enormously important) book.

Vance’s Shallow Take Versus Catte’s Research

The historical perspective she frames in this book is so important. She discusses Appalachia, coal mining, employment in the areas coal mining has left economically destroyed and/or stagnant. She references the greater discussion of white insecurity in America at the moment. So often you hear the cliched phrase, “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Nowhere is that phrase more chilling and pertinent than this book. Catte exposes the similarities in moments in our local history that do seem to repeat themselves and will continue to do so while these images and beliefs about Appalachians exist.

Appalachia: An Exploited Region & People

Catte explores the role of activism in Appalachia. She studies the tactics corporations and politicians used to undermine those activists and their message. Catte is honest about race in the region. She discusses the history of racism white Appalachians played a part in. Vance tried to absolve us of any blame which is grossly historically inaccurate. She relates several documented instances which inform her position on this. But Catte does absolve the region of its accused blinding whiteness. People of color do occupy Appalachia. POC share the history of the region. They struggled alongside white Appalachians in the coal mines, on the railroad, farming. Diversity exists here where outsiders insist it does not. They subsequently try to erase the ownership of the region of people of color, the lives they’ve built, and the inroads of progress they’ve made.

Vance excludes people of color from his memoir when discussing his beloved “hillbillies.” He repeatedly refers to the Scots-Irish ancestry of the region. He falsely claims Appalachians have retained that genetic heritage more than any other community in the nation. Catte astutely accuses him of racist generalizations by erasing people of color from the region and culture. She also references the settlement of French, German, English, Swedish, Scandinavian, Dutch, etc. in the area. She shreds his tendency to favor the eugenics theory. He implies that the shortcomings of Appalachians are a result of shared, flawed genetics.

His book, when viewed through this lens, should scare the shit out of us. We are not genetically different from the rest of the nation though the notion is so widely shared by outsiders. Eugenicists from the outside considered forced sterilization to limit our population in the past. Because corporate interest is such a powerful force with our government at all levels.

Vance’s Unscientific Claims About Appalachians

Catte goes further in her accusations against Vance’s theories. She calls out his preference for sources favored by white supremacist and nationalist individuals. Vance references eugenics theory and practice, “brain drain.” He praises the proud Scots-Irish genealogy. These should all be viewed as red flags for his priorities. Especially as there is no doubt he will run for a political office in the next five years.

K.O.!

Overall, her authority shines through and makes Vance’s novel and theories pale in comparison. Vance lacks viable research. Vance lacks insight into the sociopolitical structure of the Eastern Kentucky area he references repeatedly. His insistence on their (consequently his) genetic purity really expose him for what he is. Vance is a politically ambitious, pseudo-intellectual with white supremacist tendencies.

Even more stark after reading Catte’s response is the insincerity of Vance’s assertions. Vance claims writing his memoir did not mean he intended to be a spokesperson for the poor, white working class. Yet he continues to tour and speak on the topic. He published a book on the subject knowing very, very little of the truth behind the struggles in the region. Vance intended to capitalize on national insecurities using Appalachians to justify white insecurity and nationalist trends. This attempt is glaringly obvious when read in conjunction with Catte’s rebuttal.

In short, read What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, not Hillbilly Elegy.

Hillbilly Elegy: Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy Book Review Book Cover

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

In the introduction to Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, he admits he finds the existence of this book “absurd.” After reading it, I have to agree with him. This review will read a little bit like a rant.

A Little Context

Jackson, Kentucky is the seat of Breathitt County, a small town in a big county nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Built on the banks of the North Fork Kentucky River, Jackson was once a bustling timber and coal town. The decline of the coal industry meant coal jobs vacated Jackson in the 70’s/80’s. Fairly recently, however, the coal temple located off Hwy 30 W outside Jackson city limits has opened back up, igniting a spark of memory and hope in the locals.

The town of Jackson and the communities in the surrounding county don’t have a lot of things to make us hope these days. Our children continue to be our biggest source of inspiration. We transfer our broken dreams onto their small shoulders, put all our resources into their education, their abilities, and hope they will achieve the dreams we never had the opportunities to achieve. It’s why, in the currently raging debate on statewide K-12 education in Kentucky, we so staunchly defend teachers and are willing to take on the burden of higher taxes to provide a well-funded pension system for them. Though our legislators seem to be struggling with the logistics of actually fixing said pension system using any method. Lawyers have a way of muddying these things.

Take Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Yale Law School graduate. California resident. Marine vet. Self-described hillbilly. But not really.

There Are No Hillbillies Here

I cannot find fault in all of Vance’s book or his experiences as he escapes from a difficult domestic situation. That is an understatement. He had a Hell of a childhood and his teen years seemed to have been worse. I sympathize. He had a difficult life growing up with an unstable mother and rotating cast of fathers. As he mentions (repeatedly), he was able to overcome those difficulties and achieve a happy, successful (to date) life.

But this book is not about hillbillies. This book is not about Appalachia. This book is not about Jackson, Kentucky however often he invokes our name, invokes hurtful stereotypes that weren’t true even in the 40’s when his grandparents out-migrated for work in Ohio at the tender ages of 17 and 14.

The Jackson, Kentucky he describes is not the Jackson, Kentucky I was raised in and now raise my daughter in. The majority of the book, as a memoir of an individual growing up in Middletown, Ohio, joining the Marines, then going to Ohio State and Yale Law, has nothing substantial to do with Jackson, Kentucky, Appalachia, or “hillbillies.” He has a habit through the book of imposing the bad habits and poor choices of his family members on their status as transplanted hillbillies.

Hurtful Stereotypes

Let’s be clear, his Mamaw is mentally ill. She did a heroic thing, taking her grandchildren in like that but her actions are clearly unhinged. Her birthplace has nothing to do with her described behavior and mannerisms. I lived with my Jackson, Kentucky grandparents nearly my entire life and they behaved nothing like this. Growing up in Jackson, Kentucky, attending churches, funerals, going through the school system, meeting my friends’ families, marrying another Jackson, Kentucky resident, I have never noticed this behavior as the norm of us “hillbillies.”

I lived down a holler. That’s a road off the main highway. These hollers may be one lane, paved or gravel, and the people who live up them are usually related somewhere down the line. And if they’re not yet, they will be. Hollers are basically the driveway to Appalachian communes. There are wild residents like every other community, but the majority, especially Vance’s grandparents’ generation, behave like any other person in that age group. With a little more cooperation when it comes to feeding each other, tending family farms, and delivering errant cattle.

My grandparents were church-going people, I was pretty much raised in a pew. My Granny sang hymns and my Grandpa taught Sunday school. They dressed to the nines, stockings, slicked back hair, shaved face, and copious clouds of Avon cologne and perfume. They sparred verbally but the swearing and such is not the norm for that generation. I was raised to expect soap in my mouth for uttering a bad word. To be clear, fart was considered one such bad word.

An Epidemic

The drug problem in Southeastern Kentucky ranks among the most concerning in the nation. Admittedly we rank close to Middletown, Ohio. But I don’t think the reasons behind our shared problem resonate similarly. I do think the shared opioid addiction is the reason Vance evokes Jackson, Kentucky at all. And named his book what he did, though the title and the references to Kentucky are incredibly misleading and misrepresent his content.

Misrepresents Himself

I picked up this book expecting something entirely different and relevant to my culture. It had nothing to do with us, a wasted read. I don’t share Vance’s political ideas. I can’t relate to his experiences being raised in a middle-class family, even struggling with a drug-addicted parent. Growing up in a single wide trailer for much of my childhood, then a doublewide trailer into adolescence and young adulthood, I find it hard to think of him bereft living in a non-mobile home. Being able to buy a house (still in Jackson, KY) with my husband was a huge life achievement for me.

The whole book did read as a kind of appeal for “outsiders” to not judge white, working-class men for voting for Donald Trump. And I just don’t think they need any more help or understanding in that area.

There are several conflicting ideas in Vance’s book, for instance at the end when he puts out a call for action to Jackson, Kentucky to rise up and meet the needs of our at-risk children. But he had spent the beginning of the book exalting the culture for our emphasis on family. It just reflects his deep misunderstanding of the culture and the work being done to protect our kids here in Eastern Kentucky.

Its all well and good to draw attention to social problems afflicting our area (and nation) but Vance offers very few (half-assed) pathways to solutions. In fact, he admits there are no solutions and that we can only hope to save a few. But again, Jackson, Kentucky is not Vance’s home and he doesn’t have to help us. He doesn’t have to live with these problems. Vance escaped his Middletown problems. So, why write a book with emphasis on the problems these areas are facing at all?

Final Thoughts

After reading his book, I don’t understand his intentions, except to brag that he is successful. I don’t know if he thinks of himself as a hero to poor kids in Appalachia. I hope not, that would be incredibly sad.

As I said before, I sympathize with the struggles he did endure. But I think he greatly exaggerated his position as poor. Maybe its the “hillbilly” in me but I can’t consider him poor when his grandparents were willing to step up financially in cases where they did struggle with his mother’s mismanagement of her money.

Co-Opted Experience For Gain

I grew up poor, one of three kids to a single mother working part-time at the local Walmart (not a supercenter), living in a used, single wide trailer. My grandparents were also poor, legally blind, and unable to work beyond some small-scale farming that kept us in frozen vegetables through the winter. They owned a small plot of land inherited from my great-grandfather and their house was built by some charitable organization or another.

We had food stamps, Medicaid, CHIP, LIHEAP, and welfare. You name a government social program and it probably kept us fed, warm, housed, or alive. These same programs that Vance derides as a crutch for his drug-addicted, domestically challenged neighbors provided opportunities for me that allowed me to stay with my family, kept me and my siblings together and got us through.

Lack of Awareness

These programs evolved from the New Deal Era programs targeted at defeating poverty. Obviously, that hasn’t happened but I think its a little too nail on the head to blame stagnant/declining employment and wages on social welfare as an enabler for “freeloaders.” From my work with local oral histories, I have listened to countless stories from the time period that praised the New Deal for saving the region from total collapse and starvation.

Our Problems Are Bigger Than This Book

Places like Jackson, Kentucky have other much more complex problems keeping us in the hole. Our isolated location, difficult terrain, corrupt local politicians and their large land holdings they refuse to develop/charge high rent for, and crime rate (the name Bloody Breathitt was given to us for our tendency for violence not our WWI volunteer rate, FYI) are just a few of the issues that keep us from achieving the same economic growth as the rest of the nation.

I’m not even sure Vance addressed the employment problem in Jackson, Kentucky, the fact that 30% of our population has left in the last 20 or so years. I believe he was tenuously trying to connect the loss of factory jobs in Middletown to the loss of coal jobs in Kentucky but that isn’t really a fair comparison because we are not located in an area where other industries can easily supplant lost ones. Our roads are woefully out of date, among other infrastructure concerns, and many of our cities are one bad year away from insolvency.

There is a difference in individual poverty and institutional poverty.

Frustrating

I am just a little riled that Vance tried to use my culture, my home, and my people as a way to justify his political ideologies.

I did not enjoy this book, found it to be confusing and uninteresting. His title and summary were unrelated to the actual content of the book. The author posits himself as something poor kids should emulate but he doesn’t seem to understand that kids in poverty lack the resources he had available to him, regardless of his mother’s addiction.

2/5 Stars

More Book Reviews

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Heartless

The Fiery Cross

TBR Additions: May 2018

I have been so unmotivated this month, Y’all. Not feeling blogging or writing in general, work has been hectic and my brain is constantly exhausted. But here are my TBR Additions: May 2018 titles.

TBR Additions: May 2018

Adult Fantasy Fiction

The Pisces Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: adult, fantasy, contemporary, fiction 

The Poppy War Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: adult, fiction, fantasy, science fiction fantasy

What Should Be Wild Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: fantasy, fiction, magical realism, adult, literary fiction 

Adult Sci-Fi

Medusa Uploaded Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: science fiction, adult, fantasy 

84K Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: sci-fi, fiction

Historical Fiction

The Map of Salt and Stars Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: historical, fiction

Non-Fiction

Girl Wash Your Face Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: non-fiction, self-help, personal development 

YA Fantasy Fiction

Tags: fantasy, romance, young adult

King of Scars Book Cover and Link to Amazon Page
Tags: fantasy, young adult

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