In the Shadow of the Valley

Book 20 of 2020 was In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir. I heard it compared to Hillbilly Elegy, which I liked. This book was purely memoir, though, and didn’t offer any broader discussion or prescriptions like Hillbilly Elegy. Tl:dr, don’t bother with this book if you’ve already read the other.

To be fair, this book doesn’t claim to be anything other than one woman’s memoir about growing up in Appalachia. And her writing is good. It was engaging and painted a vivid picture. It never got in the way or made me want to scroll to get to the next interesting part. But the subject matter itself was not enlightening. It’s a litany of all the ways she was mistreated, more or less. I don’t think I had any added insight after reading the book, so that was disappointing.

I also came away unsure how exactly her husbands were abusive. She admitted they weren’t physically violent. But she doesn’t describe specific incidents to show the reader what was so terrible about them. She compares them to her father, implying that they are as bad in terms of wanting to control her. It sounds like one husband was a cheater and the other was a gossip, but it wasn’t clear what this had to do with her abusive father, or how it could be as bad as being whipped with a belt. I guess she was confused, so she left her reader confused too.

I am glad that she managed to graduate from college, get an advanced degree, and become a published writer despite the poverty she was raised in. It’s confirmation bias, but I collect examples of people getting where they belong, despite less than ideal environments. It’s some variation of “If Yan can cook, then so can you.” We make too many excuses in the United States. In Asia, you fail because you didn’t try hard enough.

I would’ve loved to see her tell us what could have made things better for her. Anything her teachers could’ve done? The government? The other students? College professors? College friends? Any self-help books for people who are growing up similar to her?

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