Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy Book CoverHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis [2016] – ★★★★1/2

Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I’d say “the feeling that our choices don’t matter” [Vance, 2016: 177].

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a man J. D. Vance, who talks about his childhood (being raised by his single, troubled mother with two children), adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in one of the poorest regions in America. This deeply personal, eye-opening book, which is also both sad and inspirational, provides a glimpse into the Appalachian culture and various (historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural) circumstances that shape its people. It is about the state of one part of America some would not like to acknowledge fully or whose issues some misunderstand. J. D. sheds away some of the stereotypes surrounding his people, while, at the same time, fairly and bravely acknowledges (people’s) personal and societal responsibilities for many disastrous societal and economic circumstances. This memoir on how class and family affect the poor, as seen through the eyes of one boy raised in one disadvantaged family, is a book hard to forget.

In the introduction to the book, J.D. writes: “I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children”. It is impossible not to heed these words. J. D. is clear in his book that that he is just an ordinary guy and not some talented person worthy of an autobiography. His main purpose in this book is to draw attention to the plight of thousands of his people living in poverty and seeing no hope, as well as to pay tribute to people who helped him succeed in life against all odds. In a non-linear fashion, J. D. tells us how he was born in 1984 and had a “chaotic” upbringing with a “revolving door of father figures”. While he was first in Jackson, Kentucky, he soon travelled with his family to live in Middletown, Ohio, and details the changing political and socio-economic situations in the region dominated by working class conservatives. His family’s poverty, the particular culture he was born into, the lack of stable home, and his imperfect mother with her numerous boyfriends, all contributed to him being constantly torn between hopelessness and love for his family, between helplessness stemming from poverty and (irrational) hope for a better future. J. D. Vance then talks about his grandparents (Paw and Mamaw) and their experiences around the end of the 1940s, noting that “this book is about …what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south”.

One of the great things about the book is that J. D. does not want to romanticise his people and culture, and say that the poor have been solely the victims of their own circumstances. He is honest, stating that the issue is complex and that parents must face up to their responsibilities when raising their children. Thus, there are no heroes or perfect people in his account, and some people in his account have only themselves to blame for their violent behaviour, drunkenness and drug abuse. Rather, the author’s point is that the complex interaction of elements (including cultural and psychological) can mean that children grow up with the innate feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and, when becoming adults, believe they cannot change anything about themselves or their circumstances. “I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith”, writes J. D. Vance. Poverty, violence and drug addiction at home, unstable homes, complex family relations, low self-esteem, wrong (aggressive) role models, lack of visible opportunities, the culture of the unity of Appalachian people “against others”, pessimism and discrimination, are just some of the factors facing young children who have to find themselves while having in mind these factors in their impressionable childhood. After all, one cannot escape one’s family and childhood, especially when one continues to love the former and will always remember the lessons from the latter (“the kids in Middletown absorb the conflict and struggle with it”). The author states that sometimes something as simple as a drive to be better than others, as well as a stable home, can make all the difference for a child’s future.

The second half of the book may not as interesting as the first since we read in the second half how J. D. applies and is being accepted to a law school after his experience as a marine. One of the most inspirational, touching and heart-warming things about the novel, however, is J. D.’s relationship with his grandmother or “Mamaw”, who is presented as being quite a character in the book. The book could as well have been called “Mamaw: A Tribute”. J. D. was lucky in this respect because it was his grandmother who provided him with a stable, loving home when his mother’s was in pieces. It was also his grandmother that preached responsibility, discipline and hard-work to J. D., realising first in his family that “social class is not just about money, but also the relationships you form”.

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir with a sympathetic person at its centre who tries both to draw attention to many issues facing poor people in the region of Appalachia, as well as to pay tribute to people who helped him succeed in life. It becomes clear from his account that poverty and particular socio-economic conditions in the region stem from a complex chain of events and “reactions”, fuelled by a particular historical context, prevalent culture and attitudes of the people. There is a lot for a reader to take from this book, not least the idea that, before we judge others, we must first born them and walk in their shoes – then, who knows what our responses to the society would be? or what mode of behaviour we would adopt, when we do not have much choice from birth? Indifference and the lack of compassion towards others; the lack of love and support in a family; as well as the lack of belief in oneself and one’s own abilities, are the greatest perils to overcome. Hillbilly Elegy is an insightful and fascinating book.


14 thoughts on “Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

  1. I love your thoughtful review/analysis! I read it while teaching at a title 1 school and I made several connections between his experiences and my student population…..especially chaotic home environments and the importance of grandparents as a stable source of support. I thought it was interesting that he didn’t place blame on reachers or classrooms but on his chaotic home life for his lack of success as a young student. I loved his explanation of the moment he realized other students had an advantage over him because they knew something in math that he didn’t and realized they must have learned it at home. This is a memorable and unforgettable read! 👍 Loved it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks very much! I also found it insightful and moving. I am not that surprised that the author did not blame the school because I truly believe that the family and stable family environment are very important components to a child’s development, worldview, self-esteem, learning, etc. Children are very impressionable and sensitive to their parents’ actions and mental states – they just need that safe, loving and stable platform from which then can draw strength, comfort, love and teachings, etc. to then develop and become successful. Not having something like this is just beyond traumatic. Family is also an area that is considered “private” in a way, so there is a danger that something terribly wrong goes on and no one may know, affecting children.

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  2. I reviewed this book on Nov. 13, 2016, in the wake of the election. Since then I’ve read a lot of criticism of it and thought increasingly critically about it. Currently I’m reading one of the responses to it, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, by Elizabeth Catte.

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  3. Thanks for telling me this! I was not aware of Catte’s arguments or her book, so it is interesting to know of it!

    I think I appreciate Vance’s story just because it is so personal. He does not have a goal to provide a history of the people of Appalachia or to state categorically why the region is considered to be poor or “problematic”. It is HIS story, HIS experience and HIS viewpoint he wants to put across. It was HIS childhood and he talks about the experience of HIS grandparents. I would even go so far as to say that his book is more about child psychology than it is about Appalachia. For me, he just presented his own family experience and they do happen to be from Appalachia. The broad fact that he does state about the region and its people is that poverty is a problem (a bigger problem, I can guess, than in other regions). The other broad idea I took from the book is that diverse factors are at play in the region and nothing can be explained just by focusing on one element or stereotype.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! I think it is an important topic worthy of numerous discussions, too. Memoirs are great in this sense since they open our eyes to lives which we would not have otherwise known.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for agreeing, and you are completely right. It read like an interesting story and what I sensed in the book was that Vance tried to be as honest as possible with us.


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