Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for more than forty years, has been reported 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 one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his 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.
One of the main reasons that reading is so important to me is the personal connection I feel to a story. Sometimes though, that personal connection hits very close to home and I have to take some time to reflect on what the book is telling me and why I have the emotional response I have. “Hillbilly Elegy” is one of those books that I really had to reflect on before I reviewed. I’m not from Appalachia but Vance’s community was very much like my own growing up. The house I lived in as a small child was little more than a shack. We often didn’t have power and when we did the only release we had from the hot summers was a swamp cooler blowing it’s mix of moldy damp air at the four of us all crammed onto a water bed. My family was ravaged by drugs and mental illness. Not just my family but my community as well. It was more a part of my life than anything else. My transition between young child and teen was bouncing in the foster system before my step dad got custody. In my early teen years we moved into a single wide trailer in a sketchy trailer park. Gunshots, drunken brawls between husband and wife, father and son, father and daughter, mother and daughter…. even siblings was an everyday occurrence. Racism played a big part in my everyday interactions. Almost everyone around me growing up was white, in deep poverty and angry. Vance brings up that the only “welfare queens” he saw were white. Well, the same goes for me. That didn’t stop those same “welfare queens” from pointing the finger at anyone who wasn’t white and slapping the label on them. Whether is fit or not didn’t matter. You see, Vance brings up a very serious cultural issue with poor whites. Poor whites are masters at not taking responsibility for anything. Not their job. Not their kids. Not their selves. Anything bad that happens is seen as unfair. Opportunities to climb out of poverty aren’t everywhere but they are still there in some ways. You have to fight tooth and nail to get there but sometimes you can make it. Vance points out that even the availability of these opportunities is hard to even know about for the poor. In Oklahoma, my school was so underfunded that we had zero career counseling or college assistance. You don’t know to ask questions about things you don’t know. As a young person, like Vance, I never would of dreamed that colleges like Yale have tons of assistance programs for the poor and that many times Yale is actually much cheaper than state schools. I went to a state school. It was insanely expensive.
Also like Vance, I saw many of my peers given opportunities to climb their way out of poverty with a decent paying job that with a little bit of time put in could of came with health benefits and vacation. I also saw my peers and myself get these great jobs and get soooooo close to those benefits only to be laid off right as we were almost there. I saw my peers blow those jobs themselves. Showing up late or not at all. There is no one fix to any of these issues but I believe that Vance is close with his focus on family. My family was a chaotic mess. We hurt each other more than we did anything else. There was nothing healthy about my family or many of those around me. It’s a cycle that will take a myriad of solutions before it’s solved even partially.
Vance identifies as a Conservative. I identify as a Democratic Socialist. Politically, it would look like we are opposites….. yet, there is a lot of common ground on our theories of how the issues of poverty can be solved. The reason, in my mind, for that common ground is our shared experiences. Those of us who have lived it understand it in a way that those who haven’t never will. This is why we need elected officials from every corner of every class of people we can find. The lenses they are currently looking through are much too narrow.
It’s important to read books that are written by people who are not like you and those who are. We all need a seat at the table to both talk and listen. Only when we work to understand each other will we build a society that works.
The Technical Data:
Title: Hillbilly Elegy | Author(s): J. D. Vance |Publisher: Harper Paperbacks / Publication Date: 5-1-2018 |Pages: 288 (Paperback) | ISBN: 978-0062300553| Genre(s): Memoir |Language:English | Rating: 5 out of 5 | Date Read: 6-05-2018 | Source: Copy from personal collection.