Book Club Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

10 Oct

I was beyond excited to talk to my book club about Hillbilly Elegy. I enjoyed the book a lot and I thought that living in the Midwest, a lot of people would have some personal connections with the story and Hillbilly culture. There were some, but not as many as I’d hoped. It was still a good discussion.

This book was released in 2016 and many early reviews said it would help explain the phenomenon of Trump winning the election. A lot of us weren’t sure that it helped us understand that at all. It was a mix of a memoir and a policy book. He didn’t have specific recommendations for policy and how to fix the problems he pointed out many times. Vance had a lot of description and didn’t let the reader’s mind picture something the way a fiction writer would. He told his story and some of our readers felt his story was very specific to him while others felt the story could be generalized for the region and people.

The Hillbilly culture Vance describes goes back to the Scotch/Irish immigrants. Those groups left their homeland to escape poverty, the same reason that Vance points out they’re now leaving Kentucky and the hills. One of our members felt that the break-up of the Hillbilly people wasn’t the only small ethnic group being broken up. She saw parallels with the Jewish communities she grew up with and how they had begun to fracture with the next generation.

Vance points out a lot of positive values in the Hillbilly culture that we felt were a little double-sided. Loyalty was stressed a lot and family was very important. Mamaw was a strong character and applauded for pouring gasoline on her husband and lighting him on fire though she could easily have been a murderer for that. We wondered if her strong character made it hard for Vance’s mother to form an identity and become her own person.

Many of us admitted that we have a very one-sided view of poverty and people on welfare. Vance provided us another side to the story and reasons why people end up taking the payments. He could have so easily ended up on welfare we well. He was lucky and admits that if any one element of his upbringing had been different, he would have ended up somewhere completely different and not have had the success he does.

J.D.’s mother’s addiction was a big part of his childhood. We talked a lot about the biological reasons she could be addicted, but also about the social and cultural reasons that could have led her to addiction. We speculated, but there wasn’t a ton of background that explained her addiction well.

Vance was very aware of his culture and the poverty associated with it from a young age. He started reading about it in high school. He seemed very critical of those taking food stamps but when the government was offering him something for free (college) or his grandmother (social security), he wasn’t critical at all. For his GI Bill, he seemed to feel that it was OK to get government assistance when he’d earned it with his service. What the difference was between those on food stamps and his grandmother’s Social Security checks, we didn’t really understand.

There were a few key elements to J.D.’s life that made him successful. He always knew he had someone who would be there for him. His grandmother and later his wife were huge supporters for him and gave him something to fall back on. His aunt was another constant in his life that he relied on. He was also able to figure out what he didn’t know and was open to asking for help when he needed it. Not everyone can do that and not everyone has someone to ask so Vance was very fortunate. He was told about the Marines and that seemed to force him to grow up a lot and he has his cousin to thank for telling him about that. He was also very intelligent and got to where he is because of that intelligence. But without one of the other elements, it might not have been enough.

This book was great for discussion and I’m really glad we finally read it. I wonder if book clubs in other parts of the country would have connected with it so well.

Until next time, write on.

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One Response to “Book Club Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance”

  1. Rae Reads October 11, 2019 at 4:40 PM #

    I think you would enjoy Born Fighting, a history of the Scots-Irish. It reinforces and illuminates Hillbilly Elegy. Our book club read this too, but it was some time ago.

    Liked by 1 person

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