Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I’ve been meaning to read this since it came out but the All-nonfiction reading group chose it so I waited until closer to the discussion date (12/1) to actually get to it.  Then I was torn between listening or reading or both.  Hmmmmm…   I finally tried the Audible version with the option of getting the Kindle version later.  (I never did it.)


Hillbilly Elegy 
by J.D. Vance
2016/ 257 pages (Kindle)
Read by J.D. Vance 6h 49m
Rating –  9

FIrst off,  J.D. Vance is smart and hard working and he is a really lucky guy.  He knows that.   And he apparently knows whereof he speaks in terms of white poverty in America,  especially the southern Ohio/Kentucky variety.   It’s the story of changes,  changes which happened in Vance’s family,  in his community and in himself.   Jobs vanish,  education isn’t really viable and communities disintegrate,  drugs and alcohol become problems, the divorce rate soars.  This may be a memoir (and it truly is),  but it’s also the story of a massive number of people who are falling to the poor side as the gap between the haves and have nots widens.  These are not welfare recipients,  they are  working class people who have been displaced.

Born and partly raised in Kentucky to an alcoholic and later addict mother (trained as a nurse),  his grandparents moved him to where they now lived in southern Ohio.   That transition is described in fair detail.  The old Kentucky hills ways followed the family even if they did make more money.   Vance’s grandfather had a good  job and had advanced over the years but times change and the jobs disappear and the family structures crack.

Because Vance didn’t really grow up and live in Jackson, Kentucky his whole life,  his book has been criticized for not being “authentic.”  In my opinion,  you can’t describe the forest if you’re stuck in the middle of the trees, so this is totally appropriate.  Vance is an intimate of the area communities while having a view to compare them.  Furthermore,  what with the immigration to Middletown Ohio,  what’s the big difference?  The Scots-Irish Kentucky-raised people in Cincinnati, Middletown and Jackson are pretty similar. That’s the point – they brought their “hillbilly ways” with them.

The book is mostly about Vance and his own family,  but there’s also plenty of general politics and micro-economics of  coal mining, Armco Kawasaki steel and the broad effect of globalization,  as well as general topics like education, drug use, guns, welfare, fighting, country  accents and so on.  The importance of local attitudes and family is stressed.

But Vance doesn’t call only on the obvious answers of making good  jobs and education available.   he adds his ideas about cultural laziness, religious attitudes, family expectations and home environments. Social class is not just about money.  Bad neighborhoods are not just about race and millions of white people feel trapped and don’t  look and actually do what they could to make their lives at least a bit better.

A lot of Vance’s personal problems are due to his family’s fighting and his  mother’s alcohol and drug abuse. He feels he was saved by his grandparents who took on a lot of his care as a child.  But drugs and alcoholism are not “hillbilly” problems.  These are equal opportunity destroyers and when added to the more general issues of education,  jobs and family disfunction and displacement,  they’re crushers.   When Papaw sobered up his and Mamaw’s lives seemed to have got  better.  But Vance’s Mom was never able to stay off drugs for long.

Religion also plays a huge role in the lives of the hillbillies in J.D.’s life.  In the end he looks to the church for some sort of help (not all).    This section was hugely interesting and rather amusing to me –  San Franciscans don’t go to church and don’t mind saying so – they might hesitate to say so if they do go.   At the polar opposite,  these Ohio-based Kentucky people might not go to church much either,  but they all say they do.  There’s a general church-based attitude toward living  – the awareness that people who have a church family have some hope and live more structured and stable lives. (At this point I wish I could look at the source notes in a print or digital book.)

And because their Christianity is hugely important to these people many feel threatened by the secular approach they see in the media and in urban areas –  blasphemous art,  no Christian symbols in public areas,  rights of pro-choice,  (and I suppose this goes back to the prayer in schools decisions,  etc.  They believe in creationism and that the end times are coming.  Homosexuality and a lot of other ideas are anathema to the devout.

Somehow this reminds me of The Glass Castle,  a memoir by Jeanette Walls,  in which a very successful adult had to get through an abominable childhood to achieve what Walls did and she tells her story.   (I never finished the Walls book – it was rather over-the -top for me.  Vance’s book is very down to earth.)

I’m sure that Vance has left out the specific parts which look bad on him. It’s not really a problem here because although the book is a memoir,  it’s not entirely about him – it’s also about his community – and mine – where illicit drugs, divorce and child abuse is common, where the jobs are disappearing if they’re not already gone,   downtown areas are becoming eyesores,  and there is less and less hope.

Fwiw,  this book made the NY Times list of “6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win” printed on 11/9,  the day after the election.



3 Responses to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  1. Keith says:

    Becky, your and Debra’s reviews are more thorough than mine. Well done. The critics who say he lacks some authenticity, since he did not live in KY, is addressed directly by Vance. He said it was important for them to travel back almost every other week to visit kin folk. Plus, he tried living with his father in KY, but felt like the odd man out, so he returned to his grandmother.

    I found his book to be very compelling and authentic of challenges facing towns and rural America. So many jobs are tied to large manufacturing plants, that when these plants shut down or reduce in numbers of employees due to technology, the whole community suffers. This happened in his small Ohio town as a microcosm of a larger problem.

    Quoting from another book by Tavis Smiley and Cornel West called “The Rich and the Rest of Us,” they quote a CFO who I paraphrase now – Companies would get by with no employees if they could. A venture capitalist on TedTalk named Nick Hanauer said bluntly – rich people do not create jobs, customers do.

    Vance offers that we need to be mindful of how to help these folks. It is jobs, plus supportive services to help people attain some stability. As I read this, we need to look for ways to invest in these communities with economic and social capital – I am hopeful with discussion on infrastructure spending, but we need to look to ABCD investing – asset based community development – where old assets like manufacturing plants are renovated and repurposed. Tax credits can help in this regard if it involves a historical site.

    I am sorry to get on a soapbox. This book has many lessons. Thanks for the review. Keith

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank for the thoughtful post, Keith. I completely agree with your statements. The jobs are everything at this point. I think the urban liberals and Democrats missed the boat in his past election in part because they overlooked these folks and this issue for them. The impoverishment of the rust-belt of the Midwest didn’t seem to matter as much as the poverty in the urban communities. I think we (progressives) didn’t realize the extent and possibly the cause of white poverty -or the depth of white newly unemployed anger.

      I also think (and Vance goes into this) people in places like Cincinnati had problems with other parts of the liberal Democrat platform, or whatever you’d call it, because they sensed the cultural foundations of their communities (religious) were also being threatened by abortion, gay rights, secular Christmas in schools and other things. That’s about all they had left besides drugs and other escapes.

      As a liberal in a TeaParty-red area of a bright blue state (rural California) my eyes were opened. I haven’t changed my views, but my sympathies have been sensitized.


      • Keith says:

        Becky, good comments. Most people do not realize that more people on welfare are white. For about five years, I have been writing how over half of the GOP is voting against their economic interests and have no idea they are. Trump physically got in front of these people and spoke to them. The sad part is they do not realize his history of as a superb marketing does not come with delivered promises. So, we need to watch if he does what he said he will and systemically helps these people. Keith

        Liked by 1 person

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