I first heard about J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis early last summer from the assistant pastor at our church. I heard about it over the course of the summer and the fall by friends in real life and online. And then pre and post-election I heard it mentioned over and over again in the media, mostly as a way to “understand why Trump won”. So when someone at my book club offered it up as a suggestion for our next selection I was glad to finally move it from my TBR pile to my read pile.
I’m still processing what I think about the book, and the book club meeting tomorrow night will probably help with that. Overall, I highly recommend it.
It’s really two books. The first is the memoir of Vance’s family. On its own, as a memoir only, the book is fascinating. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio as the grandchild of two self-proclaimed hillbillies from Kentucky. His childhood and adolescence were marked by domestic violence, a mother who struggled with addiction and a string of revolving stepfathers and boyfriends of his mom’s who were in and out of his life. However, he also writes about the fierce loyalty of his kin and the grandparents (Mamaw and Papaw) that essentially raised him and his sister. He eventually broke the cycle of poverty by joining the Marine Corps, followed by college at Ohio State University and then finally by Yale Law School.
The second part of the book is the “memoir of culture in crisis” and is the part that has been lauded by conservatives and liberals alike as providing an understanding of the white working class. This part of the book is also the part that has been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike. Depending on your political leanings you might either feel that Vance is blaming the poor for their own problems or that he is suggesting too much government intervention in society.
The more I think about the book I think that the genius of it (and also the weakness in it) is that it reflects the messiness of life: both in the personal and in culture. When Vance tell his own story he very openly attributes his success to the people he had in his life that were willing to fight for him: his Mamaw, Marine instructors, his sister, and even Amy Chua (yes, that Amy Chua). However, it also is obvious to any reader that not every kid in Appalachia who has a strong grandmother and loyal sister will end up at Yale Law School. It’s a mistake to read a memoir and try to apply the lessons directly to someone else. We all owe our success (or lack thereof) to a mix of innate talent, personality, grit, the family that we are part of, location, luck, friends, mentors, timing.
Similarly, the problems of any particular culture are messy. Vance portrays this with sympathy and honesty. He talks about friends from high school who choose not to work because they don’t want to get up early. He talks about how addiction can be both a disease but also how the addict has some personal responsibility for their choices. His arguments don’t easily fit into a political box, because the problems don’t fit neatly into the box. It’s a book that makes you think and that is definitely worth a read.
For further reading:
Some critical reviews:
J. D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones in The New Republic
Review in the Guardian by Hari Kunzru
And some positive ones:
The Lives of Poor White People by Joshua Rathman in the New Yorker
Janet at Across the Page