Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

This book took a contemporary issue and made it accessible. I was flabbergasted when Trump won the election. But then you read the plight of hillbillies, and you start to realize that they operate in a totally different world.

Synopsis

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

Review

This book took a contemporary issue and made it accessible. I was flabbergasted when Trump won the election. But then you read the plight of hillbillies, and you start to realize that they operate in a totally different world.

I found myself nodding along when Vance talked about the norms and mores among the professional elite. Recruiting dinners and social capital discussions are familiar to me. But everything else — from growing up in the midwest to growing strong in the marines — felt like a cinematic account of an entirely different lifestyle. It was fascinating to me. I knew there was an economic divide in America, but I didn’t realize all the implications: fewer opportunities, bitter voters, and broken-down families.

The book makes Vance’s political and religious views apparent without sounding preachy. It gives suggestions for political reform, without sounding radical. Vance is quite evidently well-researched and well-informed. And while he may only be able to speak for his own experiences, the fact that he has resided in three starkly different environments gives his opinions credence. I don’t know if I agree with everything he says, but at least his book makes me think about issues I never really considered before.

I had two big takeaways from this book. First, it’s important to recognize that white people know not to be openly racist, but have no qualms balking at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum among themselves. “White trash” is derogatory, and fails to recognize the multitudes of factors that prevent upward mobility (despite any privileges associated with skin colour). Second, Vance’s view towards people like his mother strongly resonated with me. He can feel anger for the life his mother chooses, but sympathy for the childhood she didn’t. They’re not mutually exclusive, and that’s a powerful and mature stance for him to take.

Related Reading

  • The Serpent King – Jeff Zentner
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother – Amy Chua
  • The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

Rating: 5/5

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