Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I read Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to understand Trump supporters. I was hoping for a politically charged explanation of the angry white man who’s feeling left behind by Washington politics. It was exactly fair for me to put so much hope in a memoir.

This book is an account of one man who was able to escape the self-sabotaging culture of the Hillbilly people in southern Ohio, Kentucky, and the rest of the Appalachian rust-belt. J.D. Vance recounts his experiences growing up with a single mother with a string of boyfriends and an occasional tendency to do drugs. His success was due largely to his supportive sister and his ever present grandparents.

This memoir is a quick and easy read. I visited rural Kentucky several times during my college days to do some spring break and summer service projects. It was interesting to read about that locale again, as I had mostly forgotten about my experiences.

But ultimately this book left me disappointed because of my unrealistic expectations. Vance got close to what I was hoping for a couple of times, but then he’d shy away and take things back to his personal tale.

If you’re looking for an interesting memoir, this book is great. If you’re hoping for a deeper understanding of the poor white communities of Appalachia, keep looking.

Rating: 3 Stars

Hillbilly Elegy
J. D. Vance
Non-Fiction
Harper
June 28, 2016
Hardcover
272

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.

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6 Comments

    1. I thought of you when I wrote this review. I know you love memoirs, so you’ll probably love this one the whole way through. It was very well written and interesting, just not what I was hoping for.

    1. Yeah. If you’re into memoirs (which you know I’m not), it might be a good read anyway. But I really wanted more political understanding. I just checked out The Righteous Mind – maybe that will be more satisfying.

  1. I enjoyed it for the most part (just finished this title). I read this for completely difference reasons: book club pick! I didn’t want to read it, didn’t want to understand Trump supporters. But I found it to be completely different from what I was expecting. I enjoyed it.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
    Follow me on Bloglovin’

    1. Interesting. Probably good then that it wasn’t as politically as I was hoping. I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was a good story. I love how book clubs can get you to read things that you wouldn’t otherwise read. I actually was pushed to read this one because of a library discussion on it. It also wasn’t as profound as I was hoping. But I still enjoyed going and discussing it with other people.

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