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Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (4/5)

3 Oct

My book club has been talking about reading this book for over a year so I’m glad we finally got to it. I bought a copy at a used book sale well before it appeared on our schedule and despite there being an audio available, I did read this one in print.

Cover Image via Goodreads

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

Summary from Goodreads:

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

I was reading this at my parents’ cottage and my mom wanted to talk about it despite me being on chapter two. She was born in Kentucky and raised in Ohio so Vance’s story was one familiar to her, her family, and a lot of her friends growing up. So in a way, this book isn’t far removed from me. She recalled a large number of friends and neighbors who would go back to Kentucky every weekend to see family and fulfill their obligation to return home and share the prosperity they’d found. I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to central Ohio. A lot of Michigan has similar groups. There’s a suburb of Detroit that’s sometimes referred to as ‘Taylor-tucky’ and we’ll joke about how the further north you go in Michigan, the more you’d think you’re in the South. There was work in Detroit and the mines and farms of Northern Michigan that attracted people from Appalachia so I feel this is a problem throughout the Midwest.

I think Vance drew a very great picture of his family members, especially his grandma. It can be hard to show the true nature of a loved one and make sure the reader knows you love that person. Mamaw was the perfect blend. She was tough and strong but she showed her love clearly. She was a good focal point for the story. Vance’s mother was hard to love and I think he even struggled with his feelings around her so I wasn’t surprised when I ended the book disliking her.

Mamaw was my favorite person in this book. She really showed the struggles Vance was talking about while being a fierce advocate for her grandson and a big reason for his success. I loved how involved she was in her grandchildren’s lives and how she loved them. I wondered how she felt about her daughter messing up as often as she did and if she felt, as Papaw did, that she’d failed her. We never really hear.

Being from the Midwest, I know these people. I know the people who feel that they are at a disadvantage and the ‘man’ is out to get them though they never work. I know people who believe in Hillbilly Justice. I know the working towns with a major employer who leaves and devastates the town. This book was very close to home, more so for other members of my family than my own, but still close. I think Vance has pointed out a very real problem the Midwest is dealing with and speaks well to the true roots of the problem.

J.D. Vance
Image via Mondavi Center

It was eye-opening how Vance reflected on the people he’d grown up with and how they did not fare the same as him. When you hear a success story like his, you don’t always think about the people who didn’t make it, who weren’t as lucky. I’m glad he addressed this and talked about how his contemporaries could have been better assisted and helped to deal with the lot in life that they’d been given.

Nothing in this book dragged for me or was disinteresting. I wished there was more about Vance’s time in the military, but it wouldn’t have contributed to his storyline in any way so I understand why it was glossed over.

It’s becoming clearer that the US is in the midst of several crises that are culminating and not being addressed. In addition to racism, the Me Too movement, health care costs, opioids, and student debt, we’re seeing people incapable of achieving the American Dream as it’s been taught to us. No single leader will be able to tackle these issues, especially with the bipartisan design of American politics. We’re seeing business tackle these issues more and more. To be honest, I support this. It allows me to ‘vote’ for companies I believe in with my purchases when I feel like my political vote isn’t doing enough.

Writer’s Takeaway: Vance does a great job of combining personal experience with research and historical fact. The book reads more like a memoir than a sociology book about the Hillbillies. I liked the combination and how his story helps you connect with the issues. He uses his experience and that of his family to show how the problems perpetuate and why they exist. It was a very powerful combination.

This was a great read and I think it will make for a powerful book club discussion. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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