Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By: JD Vance (Author/Narrator)
Unabridged 6 hr and 49 min
From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.
Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.
As someone who spent her childhood raised in the Appalachian region, I approached Hillbilly Elegy as a personal read. The majority of my life was spent living between Ohio and Kentucky before finally relocating across the states to Oregon. I knew that I would find some possibly comforting and perhaps discomforting familiarity within the pages of this memoir. However, what you are about to read is brief and a bit defensive I am admitting, because that is how this title made me feel for the majority of my time with it.
I want to be forthcoming before I delve too far into my experience with this book. I have reshelved this title several times for a variety of reasons. I have read countless reviews and debates comparing this memoir to the very reason Trump succeeded in the presidential election and have encountered multiple labels and “assumptions” spread throughout those comments in regards to individuals from the Appalachian region that paint a picture of an uneducated and decaying society that has little to offer. And while, I cannot deny there are faults within every community and that the economic hardships within this society have certainly created a series of challenges that feel stagnating at the best of times, reading these remarks are difficult to swallow when you know the reality of what lies beneath the surface.
I have also must admit that I found myself associating with and struggling with JD’s story. While my family did not exactly adhere to the same ideals and practices, I was a friend to many who did. I grew up in an area that was small and everyone knew everyone. This was life for many years. A declining economy and failing welfare system certainly attributed to fewer resources in terms of education, declining work ethic/morale and increased drug abuse in many areas. I think the same can be said for any area or society as this is a common theme when individuals begin to struggle. But it is not the only theme. Amidst the turmoil and challenges there are those who arise with a fierce loyalty and desire to overcome. Much as JD has done. I did enjoy his narration and felt that it added a nice personal touch. All memoirs should be self narrated when possible. And I feel that some personal truth for the author was exposed, which is always admirable.
My problem lies within the fact that Hillbilly Elegy feels too blanketed. Listening to JD describe his history of family violence and the constant references to the lack of education and failure to thrive was not only depressing but somewhat unfair. I cannot deny the truths in this book as I have witnessed them first hand, but I have also been fortunate enough to personally witness the other side of the coin and found myself unable to fully appreciate the “tunnel vision” I experienced during my time listening the his tale. I will not attempt to discredit and disagree with the information provided and will respect the author’s raw approach to this. I encountered some of the mentioned directly throughout my own childhood. But I was saddened with the end result and that read a bit like misplaced blame and solicited unnecessary labels and assumptions within the reading community. I am very aware of the stigma associated with this region as I have experienced it and continue to do so at time when asked where I grew up. This felt like a missed opportunity to lift the veil and clear some of the negative air. It feels that too often literature chooses to focus on the stereotypes and downfalls of this culture while failing to acknowledge the strengths and positives. I choose to believe there have to be better explorations and representations of the Appalachian region in existence.
Enjoyed with a cup of Earl Grey and a splash of milk.