A Review of “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance

elegy“Surveys have found, working-class whites are the most pessimistic group in America” (4). J.D. Vance know something about this truth, since he grew up within a white work-class family. In Hillbilly Elegy he recounts his experiences which reveal more than just an intriguing memoir. This book is a fascinating revelation of a “culture in crisis.” In many ways his book offers a gripping and insightful explanation of the cultural milieu of America in 2016.

2016 has been a year of stunning cultural upheaval within this country. With racial tensions high, and a shocking victory of President-Elect Donald Trump, many are struggling to make sense of what has happened. J.D. Vance offers a sort of backdoor explanation as he unpacks the culture of his kin. He offers insights into the frustrations that lead many to vote for Trump. He explains the distrust of political leaders, media, and the American Dream that many within his community have developed. He explores the tension that exists between a lack of opportunity and personal responsibility. In many ways Hillbilly Elegy can help many of us understand our current cultural climate. Written before the events of 2016 were crystalized, the book nonetheless explains 2016.

Vance is a fascinating individual. Readers get to see inside his world as they navigate the 15 chapters that take us from his childhood in Jackson, KY, to his development in Middletown, OH, through the Marines and into Law School. They learn about “Hillbilly” culture, loyalty, violence, and values. Vance describes his own surprise that he “made it” in life. He writes:

My name is J.D. Vance, and I think I should start with a  confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd. It says right there not eh cover that it’s a memoir, but I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it…So, I didn’t write this book because I’ve accomplished something extraordinary. I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me. (1)

In many ways it is the banality of his accomplishments which makes Vance’s memoir so compelling. It’s compelling because even the most ordinary of accomplishments is rare among his community. The culture in which he grew up in did not believe in “upward mobility.” It didn’t cultivate handwork, personal responsibility, and the belief that individual choices matter. His the people in his culture, the working white-class folks of Appalachia, “if they’re lucky…manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky, they’ll die of a heroin overdose” (3). The ordinary accomplishments, then, of his life are astounding in the light of his upbringing and context.

His upbringing was rough. He was abandoned by his father, subjected to his mother’s drug abuse, and the “parade of men” that she brought through their life. He struggled in school, largely owing to the instability of his home – full of domestic violence as it was. He had many insecurities and deficiencies as a result of this upbringing, but he had a strong community of support in his grandparents, uncles, and aunts, and especially his sister. That is the biggest part of Vance’s story – the family who made his ordinary success possible.

The book is fascinating and insightful. I spent many years living among rural people of Southern Ohio. There were many things which I never quite understood or adjusted to. This book was a fascinating read in that it helped me to see what I was missing about the wonderful people I lived among, about the complexities of their life, and the divergence of agreement between us. Vance showed me more of an important picture that I needed to see. He presents, truly, a culture in crisis and one that has been, in some ways, forgotten, abandoned, and dismissed. Yet, as the recent election has shown, a culture that is a significant part of this country. There’s much to appreciate, then, in Vance’s own story – which sheds light on the story of many of my neighbors and friends.

The book is well-written and compelling. I couldn’t put it down as each chapter reveals a startling new development in young J.D.’s life. Yet, it should be stated clearly that it is written from within the author’s own cultural context and as such bears the language of his family. It can be crass at points, and the stories themselves can be unsettling. Readers should be conscious of what they can handle and what they are comfortable with. This is an insightful work and I found it helpful in many ways. Not all will benefit from it. Some will find the information about Appalachia too anecdotal and tend towards some level of criticism on the author’s sociology. There is some room for skepticism, I am sure. But as an outsider who has lived among Appalachian families, I found it very compelling. Hillbilly Elegy is not a book for everyone, but it does offer something of an explanation for our current cultural climate that is worth hearing.

Comments

  1. Kypros, Bess says:

    Dave, I am in the midst of reading this. I find it extremely interesting. I grew up in Mansfield Ohio. My first job in 1950 was in the credit department at Montgomery Wards. I remember how patient the clerks had to be with “hillbillies” who complained about late charge fees. I enjoyed your review. Bess

    Sent from my iPad

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