Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

’ve been meaning to read this since it came out but the All-nonfiction reading group chose it and I waited until closer to the discussion date 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/ 2579 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 economics (coal mining, Armco Kawasaki steel, 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 good available jobs and education,  he adds his ideas  about laziness, attitudes, 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 rather than looking at what they can do to make their lives 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,  it’s a crusher.   When Papaw sobered up his and Mamaw’s lives seemed to have got  better.  Mom never was able to stay off drugs.

Religion also plays a huge role in the lives of the hillbillies surrounding J.D. And in the end he looks to the churches for some sort of help (not all).    This section was hugely interesting 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, 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 get there and she tells her story.   (I never finished the Walls book – it was rather over-the -top for me.)

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,  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.



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1 Response to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  1. Pingback: There Is Nothing For You Here ~ by Fiona Hill  | Becky's Books –

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