Review of Hillbilly Elegy


Hillbilly Elegy

J.D. Vance


June 28, 2016

Blurb from GoodreadsFrom 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.


Since November 2016, I have been trying to understand how the United States found itself under its current leadership. News reports (not fake) told me of the huge numbers of people in the United States who feel like they’ve been forgotten about. They are mired in impoverished towns and in hopelessness. Many articles pointed to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance as a path toward understanding this situation.

First off, you know I don’t read a lot of non-fiction and for me to finish a non-fiction book (that is not poetry) in a very short time is almost unheard of, but Hillbilly Elegy is not only well-written, it’s equally engrossing and fascinating.

A lot of what you read in Hillbilly Elegy can be eye-opening as well as hard to digest. The last time I had my eyes opened this wide was during Hurricane Katrina when I saw what happened to the impoverished of New Orleans. In the US, there are pockets where drug addiction has taken hold, where people feel so pessimistic about life that the American dream is just words, and there are people who are just getting lost in a system that was originally designed to help them.

Since I have been reading a lot about the rural mindset in the past months, I can’t say that the observations about hard-working people being upset about a welfare state were surprising. Other bits though did surprise me. How rural families who once were part of a tight-knit community are failing, which contributes to a sense of hopelessness, how schools are being blamed for situations that have their origins at home, and how some would rather blame an outside force than take personal responsibility.

Vance tells us about his great grandparents, his grandparents, and then his parents and inevitably his own life. He is brutally honest about his life and upbringing, about what he understood growing up about family and religion and loyalty and education. Intertwined with his life story are footnotes pointing towards some astonishing facts regarding marital statistics, drug use, migration, education, etc.

I don’t expect that Vance’s story represents all of the rural poor in the United States, but it does shed some light on some populations of it, which is necessary in order to make us all a bit more open-minded and realize that the truth for each one of us is certainly not the truth for every American.

I highly recommend this book. I think it’s an important, blunt consideration of an overlooked geographic and economic segment of the American population.

Source: my wonderful library!

rating: 4-and-a-half

4 butterflies and a ladybug out of 5 butterflies

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