Vance, a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, provides an account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America's white working class. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck. The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love," and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance's grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.
Vance grew up a hillbilly, and became a Marine and a Yale law grad. He's now a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm. How unusual is that?! He has a remarkable personal story to tell, but it's his understanding and insight into the social context that sets this book apart. I was struck, for example, by his pointing out that, even apart from race, Obama is nothing like this group, and that the white working class couldn't relate to him. Highly educated, professorial, belonging to what the WWC folks consider an elite apart from them, the challenges he overcame to get there made no difference. The same with Hillary.
Here's an excerpt from the NY Times review of the book:
"Now, along comes Mr. Vance, offering a compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump. Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans."
It's well worth your reading time.
Publisher’s Summary: from Audible.com
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America's white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis - that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
I thoroughly enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy from several points of view: sociologically, educationally, and personally.
Sociologically, the novel is an intimate portrait of a social class in decline. I am a firm believer that no number of textbooks can explain the reasons for such a decline as can one who has lived it first-hand. And certainly, a true account of what that experience feels like must come from “inside.” Vance writes: “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” Both as an educator, and personally, Vance’s exploration into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and the decades-long affect such trauma has on children is invaluable. Again, no textbook can explain or enlighten as can one who has lived the ordeal. Highly recommended reading!
-“I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”
-“social mobility isn’t just about money and economics, it’s about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.”
-“We do know that working-class Americans aren’t just less likely to climb the economic ladder, they’re also more likely to fall off even after they’ve reached the top. I imagine that the discomfort they feel at leaving behind much of their identity plays at least a small role in this problem. One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.”
-“whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.”
-“For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated ... We are constantly ready to fight or flee, because there is a constant exposure to the bear, whether that bear is an alcoholic dad or an unhinged mom … I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle.”
"...social mobility isn't just about money and economics, it's about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and the powerful aren't just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst. At no time was this more obvious than the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining -- my grandma's and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis."
I had not realized that this book, which has topped the reading lists of liberal intellectual circles for the past several months, was a memoir. I expected an academic treatise, a narrative nonfiction work of sociology. Instead, I got a very personal recounting of the life of a man born in southeast Kentucky and raised in Rust Belt Ohio by a poor and chaotic family. Vance is still in his early 30s so this is a memoir of youth. It is also an examination of the cultural dynamics of poor white "hillbillies," his own word for his extended family and their community.
One reason for the book's popularity is liberal intellectual Americans' desire to "understand" the results of the most recent election and the increasing divide between classes within our society. Vance does provide a glimpse into a culture steeped in loyalty and mistrust, deep patriotism and vilification of government, resentment of the rich and a reluctance to consider one's own contribution to stagnation. Vance explores these paradoxes with his own loyalty on his sleeve and this is one reason for the success of the work. He invites compassion and understanding, appreciation for the good in his people even as they abuse drugs or scream obscenities at one another, and an openness to solutions that focus less on schools, for example, and more on the family unit so crucial to a child's sense of security in the world.
It's not great literature, but it's a worthwhile read.
The "elegy" is his own story, even though he is barely over 30; he is chronicling the fate of "hillbillies," the still robustly Scots-Irish that settled in Appalachia and in two waves populated much of the Midwestern rust belt. His story features his grandparents' more stable presence in his life, the religious instruction from his father, and the embodiment of the trials of the white working class in his mother. He explains the trauma he experienced in his childhood because of domestic life, the respite he gained from his grandparents, and how he was one of the very few to overcome the toxic cycle of blame, despair, drugs, etc., that have plagued much of middle America.
In many respects he tells the story of how one escapes poverty; I have previously learned much from Ruby Payne's "Bridges Out of Poverty" seminar materials, and the author's story does well at giving a living example of the poverty class values and how one could learn to live among the wealthy class. He makes it clear that it wasn't intuitive and it required good people in his life who encouraged him and kept him going.
The book is absolutely worth all the accolades it is receiving. The author comes from a conservative perspective but is not aggressively dogmatic; he does well to show how both liberal explanations and solutions and conservative explanations and solutions may be true in part but miss the whole. He does well in showing that this is not a problem government can really fix; it must come from the willingness of the people themselves to believe, to aspire for better, and to turn pretense into reality and actually work like they claim to work.
I grew up in northern Illinois, a place with a slightly different culture, but have worked in areas in Ohio and can attest to the validity of that which the author speaks. A great resource to understand more about hillbilly culture.
While Mr. Vance’s memoir is enlightening, one should express caution before applying his lessons to an entire culture. After all, this is one man’s musings about his heritage – a man who no longer lives in the area and who is far removed from his former socio-economic status and that of his relatives. His is the exception to the rule, and his “lessons” on how hillbillies can improve their lots in life are overly simplistic and contingent on many of the same advantages and chances that he was able to grab.
Mr. Vance does make some excellent observations about the hillbilly culture and does explain to some extent how such a blue-collar society can support a political party that typically does not attract blue-collar voters. However, it is important to remember that Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir and nothing more. Any sociological observations are biased in the extreme and severely limited to his own experiences. While he sheds light on the Appalachian culture, it is not a serious study from which one can draw conclusions or apply conclusions to the entire culture. In fact, this is what Mr. Vance attempts to do but fails to remove his own bias and luck. The result is a book that is interesting but fails to provide any real insight into this very large and blighted area of America.
As a rags to riches affirmation of the American Dream, the book is compelling enough. Mr Vance has a difficult childhood, with an absent real father, but constantly rotating father figures from the many marriages and liaisons of his mother, who has substance abuse and mental health issues. He is essentially raised by his no nonsense, tough as old boots grandmother and his older sister. He graduates high school, if only just, and makes a decision to join the Marines rather that go to college.
Up to this point, the story is interesting. Vance is self deprecating (perhaps a little too much so at times) seemingly honest about his own failings and those of family members, and he has a decent sense of humour. Despite the books title, though, this is really about a family in crisis and there is really relatively little discussion of hillbilly culture. We learn that large shambolic families are the norm , protecting the honour of your family with violence is expected, and that bad decisions come from bad options (which is hardly unique to hillbillies). Mr Vance makes sweeping generalisations about "the white working class" and whilst some of his conclusions seem fair enough, it is unclear how he has arrived at them. For example, he is probably right that some people who blame the government or society for their misfortunes might be better advised to look at their own poor choices; but how and when did a culture of self reliance turn into a culture of blame? He is undoubtedly right that many people no longer trust mainstream media. But why don't they? Why do they think they are being lied to? He is disingenuous on the reasons for President Obama's unpopularity in the rustbelt. He blames it on the fact that Mr Obama looks cultured and well spoken, and wears a suit to work. Err yes. But so did President Bush wear a nice suit and the rustbelt had no issue voting for him. It seems that Mr Vance does not consider the possibility that race might have something to do with it, perhaps not in his own family (although the fact that one of his cousins is disowned by her family for giving birth to a black baby would seem to give lie to that) but certainly in general
Mr Vance joins the Marines because he believes he is not ready for college - and here the story gets less interesting. The armed forces teach him self discipline (mainly through the medium of shouting at him it seems) and how to be an adult. He goes to Iraq, but not in a fighting role. Somehow, and this is not explained, he has morphed into being in the Marines PR department rather than being a grunt. He leaves the Marines, churns through Ohio State University at double speed despite holding down 2 or 3 jobs, goes to Yale and from there has it made. He has some amusing anecdotes to tell about hillbilly social faux pas in the cultured Ivy League world but that's about it
So what do we take out from this? Mr Vance's story, at least until he leaves Middletown, Ohio, is interesting enough and is worth reading. His comments on hillbilly, or white working class, culture are probably correct but not particularly illuminating. His solution? He doesn't really have any (which is fair enough, these are hardly simple problems) other than a return to self help, self reliance, a strong role for the church, and you suspect (although Mr Vance doesn't overtly say it) a return to national service. What these directionless young people need, you suspect he believes, is a good dose of being shouted at by a drill sergeant. Its a point of view anyway
Vance grew up poor in southeastern Ohio and eastern Kentucky. He was raised mostly by his grand parents, largely his grandmother (Mamaw) who was a guiding force in keeping J.D. from the fate of many young men, in these hard-scrabble regions. Many of the same things we see in our inner-city “ghettos” happen here too: rampant drug/alcohol abuse, poor education, crime, joblessness and of course hopelessness and anger.
J.D. survived school and entered the Marines. This transformed his life and he went on to college and then to Yale Law School.
This is a timely and beautifully written memoir, filled with humor, grief, pain and insight. It also looks at the reasons why the white working class supports the GOP:
“There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.”
This makes a perfect companion piece to White Trash, which I read awhile back, although that book has flaws, this one does not.
He makes it clear that he loves his family, warts and all but his special connection and the help he received from his memaw was priceless. She was his saving grace. Some of his family members, an aunt, his sister, have broken the chain of drug use, alcoholism, many partners in and out, as they both have long marriages behind them. Vance does go into some sociological aspects, explains the exodus of many from his small Kentucky town to Ohio, jobs offered by the new steel mill being the draw, the problems those who moved away from their families experienced. All in all this is a very informative book, Vance's story both harrowing and touching in turns.
Only in the very last chapter does he admit that hillbilly culture needs to help itself, that it's not the government's fault or the fault of public policy that they consistently place among the poorest and least-educated American group of people. I felt the majority of the book was spent not overtly and blatantly blaming everyone else but very subtly hinting that it's not a hillbilly's fault that they're doomed from the start, it's just the way it is and it's the only thing they know. He very gently blamed his people for their shortcomings but then was very quick to defend them. Very, very quick. I just wanted to scream, "PICK ONE!"
According to Vance, hillbillies hate Barack and Michelle Obama because they are well-educated and had to overcome a different adversity (*cough racism cough*) to hillbilly adversity and grew up in a metropolis and that's apparently easier than a white hillbilly's Appalachian adversity... bullshit. Black inner-city children have just as many, if not more adversity to push through as white Rust-Belt hillbilly children. You're not going to convince me that you had it worse but that they came out better than you and that's why you resent a successful black man and woman. Do hillbillies resent successful white men and women who are doctors and lawyers and bankers for rising up making themselves successful? What a gigantic cop-out.
"We hate Michelle Obama's healthy eating programs for children not because we disagree with her ideas but because we know she's right." Suuuuuuuuuuuuuure. These black people worked harder and did more to advance themselves than you did, you resent it because even white hillbillies have unjustified white privilege and that's the long and short of it. Vance conveniently skirted around the racism issue of middle-American white people.
I found the story in itself to be fascinating; the habits and rituals and customs of a group of people that I'm not at all familiar with. That's what kept me reading, not J.D. Vance's personal story, truly. You can only say that you're not an asshole so many times before somehow it just doesn't ring true. The well-written history and overall interesting subject matter is what helped me give this a solid three stars.
But to get one recurring thought out of the way, if you don’t know or haven’t known hillbillies as Vance describes them, then perhaps you should get out more. Go meet some. Hillbillies are everywhere, even if they don’t cotton to the name, “hillbilly”. Meanwhile, don’t mistake this book as a passable substitute for meeting a hillbilly; or a field guide to the common thoughts, actions, and wisdom of the American Hillbilly in native habitat. This book is a story about J.D. Vance’s life. Period.
That said, the marketers and publishers did a great job of hyping the book. The groundswell of promotion leads one to believe this book explains Trump, Trump's supporters, the rise of nationalism, populism, and the next wave of fundamentalist protectionism. It doesn’t. Don’t buy this book if that’s what you hope to learn. (And If that is what you think you learned reading this book, you learned nothing of the sort.) The book is an authentic and compelling personal story of and by a poor kid raised in an inconsistent environment. The prose flows like water. The story is interesting and at times compelling.
The next thing to take issue with is the title. Maybe the spin-promoters had a bit too much influence over the book title, but the title is misleading. Fortunately I can think of at least three more descriptive titles. _Hillbilly Apologist_ comes to mind; although Vance is more of a creator than apologist; creating his own idealized, self-defined Hillbilly subcultural ethnography -- albeit in a drastically limited use of the term Hillbilly since his description of Appalachia is expressly limited to the northern extremities of Appalachia and doesn’t quite resonate with Southern or New South definitions. (Vance references the South, once or twice. I know Kentucky and West Virginia and even the southern bit of Ohio hew close to or are legitimately south of the Mason Dixon line. But I’m just telling you, the regionalism is strong in this book -- a bit too strong, given the hype.) Another title option might be _Redneck Crybaby_ -- I’m sure I am not the only reader to find the whole “woe my life was hard because my people were poor” refrain to have gotten a bit tiresome by the end of the book. Lastly, let me suggest a title in the long-winded style of 18th century publishing: _How I mostly overcame xenophobic induced instability_ by escaping the bad influences of my family -- even though I think some people in my family aren’t all bad -- and even though my hillbilly brethren are tough, irascible, kinda lazy, and preternaturally lunk-headed -- but don’t call hillbillies lazy because you’re not like me since you didn’t grow up the way I grew up. by J.D. Vance, Esq.
The last point to make is the first one Vance makes in the opening sentence. This book is absurd. It’s absurd that a thirty-year-old would write a memoir. The author’s notions of class surfing are absurdly explained while cleverly grounded in cherry picked authoritative summaries of more serious explanations. A real life, modernized Horatio Alger tale is interesting even while its implications are no more applicable today than they were in the early nineteenth century. Vance’s anecdotes are good entertainment.
It sat on my end-table for almost three weeks before I picked it up to look at the intro before bed--just after 2130. I finished it about 0230. This is what I wrote about it then:
My [Scot-Irish] Okie family isn't quite his Appalachian hillbilly--and thankfully, my southern part of southern CA was different than his Kentucky and Ohio.... but boy... wow. Things family and friends said and did, both helpful and nasty, could have been quotes from my own childhood; and, the weird issues of identity and transition with trying to move on and all that entails... just wow.
* * *
"...these problems of family, faith, and culture aren't like a Rubik's Cube, and I don't think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, 'The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can't fix these things. They'll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.'
"There were many thumbs put on my scale. When I look back at my life, what jumps out is how many variables had to fall in place in order to give me a chance... Remove any of these people from the equation, and I'm probably screwed. Other people who have overcome the odds cite the same sort of interventions." (p238)
* * *
Its been a few weeks since the blush of that initial inhalation of the book. As I've considered it, and reskimmed parts of it. There's a lot to be gleaned from the book: for me personally, for friends and family who don't come from that kind of world, and potentially for understanding at least part of the schisms currently causing all of us so many problems.
(2016 Review #17)
Where this falls down is in the broader purpose of the book. The larger sociological statement here is absolutely pedestrian. Every step of Vance's analysis is completely obvious. The fact that yhis info is not known to many says a lot about economic segregation in this country. Another issue for me: Vance seems to miss the fact that most people don't have the internal or external resources to take positive responsibility. Bootstrap pulling is not an answer to these.problems. When hillbillies (or any other group plagued by generational poverty) go out and commit violent acts, scheme, drop out, join hate groups, fake disability to get money, etc. they are exercising personal responsibility, just not in a socially advantageous way. They see no other way of doing so. They can't all join the Marines. I don't have many answers, but I do know that most people have no good bootstraps to pull on. I also know that Vance's grandfather was able to work hard and support his family, and develop a sense of self-worth and the resources to help his grandchildren. Due to wage compression the generations that came after could not do the same, no matter how much bootstrap pulling they did. Vance's story would likely have played out somewhat differently if he had been born 10 years later. The author is on the way to some good answers but he is not there, I hope he keeps thinking about these issues.
This may well be true, but on the other hand, I grew up in a similar small town in Connecticut... It really wasn't until I left that I realized how close to the poverty line we lived; hand-me-downs, hand-made clothes, Spam as a main dish... And I married someone whose family came from Kentucky (and where grew up quite close to Vance's Middletown, Ohio). I recall visiting relatives in Ocala in the late 1960s who still had an outhouse. And I know well the "Mamaw" and "Papaw" grandparents of Vance, though my wife's did not use the colorful language of Vance's Mamaw.
Where it is hard to relate is that I have never understood the provincial mindset, the allegiance to "roots". I have never understood regional loyalties, the "Southern way", hollers or kin. Once I left Connecticut, I had no intention of going back. The limits were suffocating, though I only felt them after I left, when I realized there was a much bigger world than our 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica (I have no idea how much debt my parents incurred to give us that incredible resource) shared with me.
So, this book paints a picture. A specific autobiographical picture, which should not be construed as indicative of all "hillbillies", but with commonalities too many can identify with. It did not explain to me why the people described would vote for people who are clearly intuitively obvious to the most casual observer not representing them. The distinct lack of critical thinking does not mean lack of intelligence. But Vance himself notes how people refuse to believe the truth, or worse, believe untruths despite being shown the truth, and I can't abide willful ignorance.
Maybe this was too close for comfort. Too real. Memories of a distanced family. Memories of a small town life consciously, and with deliberate intent, left behind long ago. But I have always held that it is a moral imperative to improve oneself - if not one's lot in life, then at least intellectually - in spite of one's environment. Vance made something of himself. This is good. But he admits to heroes that tells me he stopped short.
ETA: Meh. I don't get why all the fuss and bother about this book. It's not bad, but I don't feel like it was full of earth-shattering revelations or anything. I mean, I guess if you grew up in an upper-middle class white world, there might be some new perspective to be gained into the lives of the lower-middle and lower classes. But. for me, the people described in these pages were neighbors and family and situations I knew from childhood. If you've ever eaten bologna sandwiches with ketchup because you're out of Miracle Whip, you can probably skip this one.
I read this book hoping for an insight into the results of the presidential election, but I was disappointed. Vance, at the age of thirty-one, wrote a memoir that describes how he escaped the poverty, addiction and despair of his upbringing to graduate from Harvard Law School, find a good job, and marry a good woman. These days he is a Republican who believes that the poor are too dependent on welfare. Yes, he has escaped his upbringing. Is that success?
I enjoyed the first half of this book, but the author's self-congratulation began to annoy me. Then I ran up against a burst of patriotism and had to struggle to finish. (When Americans go on about the greatest country in the world I am revolted. I doubt that I am alone.) Vance's book does not live up to its reviews.
The author is very open about this problems and pain of his early life as a hillbilly out of Kentucky and then Ohio, only to then catch a few breaks, work very hard, enlist in the Marines, and end up a graduate of Yale Law School. Growing up, his grandparents made a major difference to him, because his mother wasn't a source of much stability for him our his older sister, with her constantly changing husbands and companions, and a serious addiction problem. The breaks and the networking (a word he never heard growing up) that made all the difference in his life, were something that the poorer folks in our culture know little of. He gives a lot of credit to the Marines for giving many of the life skills that helped him to begin to figure out how progress can be achieved.
Overall, the book was very interesting and was told from a viewpoint that our culture doesn't hear, or listen to often. A different perspective on life is most always worth a listen ... grasshopper.
The insight into a cultural group is marred by the fact that JD himself doesn't really have much true insight into the people around him. He has a thesis about human nature in general that he is interested in proposing based on his life experience, but he doesn't reach any great or interesting conclusions, merely that poor white people need to buckle up and try harder. Despite his great revelation that the people around him have learned helplessness due to repeated defeats despite their best efforts, he rarely addresses the great socio-political reasons why that learned helplessness has occurred. Such massive world-changing events as September 11th, Bill Clinton, and the New Deal are barely mentioned in passing,
The purpose of a memoir is, of course, to be about the story of the author's life, but this book is also clearly trying to make grand conclusions about American society and that is where it fails completely.
Perhaps a certain amount of self-absorbtion is required to write a memoir in the first place, but discussions of the importance of family repeat despite the fact that the author rarely presents the perspectives of his family members and never on himself.
The author comes across as an arrogant, lucky guy who rarely thinks of people outside of himself and thinks that he has figured out the world. I'm sure I can find other books to read about the culture and history of white Appalachians that would be more interesting and insightful and that don't have such a boring narrator.
They brought with them many of their customs and beliefs.
These were fiercely independent people. They brought with them a strong sense of family – but unfortunately this sometimes included broken families, addictions and child abuse. Many of them had lived in abject poverty, but refused government help which would have given their children a better chance at education and life. They looked down on those receiving such help.
They also looked down on government regulations.
One incident that I found both amusing and enlightening was that of one family bringing a few chickens into their city backyard. A neighbor was appalled at seeing chickens butchered outside her window. A zoning board got involved and chickens were outlawed in the 'burbs. The relatives' reaction? “#?#Xing zoning board stay out of my life.”
This book is included in The New York Times list of 'Six Books to Help you Understand Trumps's Win' which was published in November of 2016.
Will I ever understand Trump's supporters? Probably not, but this is an interesting description of the evolution of some of their populist views.
For Vance, the key is that hillbillies (and the poor blacks to whom he frequently compares them) have surrendered a sense of agency -- that anything they may do matters or is effective or is consequential. And this is key: Vance sees them as agents who have surrendered agency, not people from whom agency has been taken by (name your villain) oppression, racism, lack of opportunity, or government programs creating a cycle of laziness.
This is a hard book to like. Putting aside the inevitably smarminess of a 31-year-old writing a memoir and purporting to have answers for the dark, complicated and even byzantine personalities among whom he grew up, and the very selective recourse to certain types of supporting scholarship and research, Vance unearths but does not quite address one theme that seems to animate both him in his success as well as those he left behind: rage. Blinding, inexplicable rage.
His own rage he attributes to a hillbilly ethos and machismo as well as to ACEs (adverse childhood experiences). But rage seems to permeate every character he evokes. That rage may be effective in achieving its short term goals (often pride-based), but often Vance depicts an impotent rage that expresses itself in self-destructive choices; suspicion of media, churches, and other institutions; and hair-trigger violence. Vance continues to experience it even after he has achieved the American dream. It is pervasive and Vance does not really investigate its importance to the hillbilly predicament. How much of this rage is the cause of economic distress (and economic inequality made painfully visible and immediate by television and the media) or its result is not made clear by Hillbilly Elegy.
Vance is clearly smart, clearly driven, and clearly the beneficiary of some lucky breaks and good mentors. He wants to restore agency to hillbilly people -- not entirely blaming them from bad choices but also not relieving them from responsibility. What the book lacks (and perhaps this is too much to ask of a memoir) is a prescription for tempering the rage and fostering the sort of hillbilly community Vance thinks is essential.
J.D. was born in 1984, after the end of the great post World War II boom that gave jobs to men like his grandfather in the Armco plant in Middletown, Ohio. Though they had achieved an outwardly middle class life, J.D.’s grandparents could never escape the worst aspects of the culture they came from, especially a tendency to fight and argue at even the slightest hint of disrespect and a distrust of strangers, not being the least among them; constant abuse of alcohol was another deadly trait. When the economic decline took hold, the lives of many in the working class would become filled with anger and apprehension, with drugs, alcohol and casual violence became the main forms of relief from this malaise. Young J.D.’s mother drifted from one relationship to another as her substance abuse problems worsened, while his father was not part of his life. But he had a rock to lean on in the persons of his mother’s parents, Mamaw and Papaw Vance, who gave him the love and stability to not only endure his rough environment, but ultimately, to rise above it. After high school, he did a stint in the Marine Corp, where he gained the discipline and focus to apply to the Yale School of Law.
J.D. Vance is wonderfully candid about his early life, and his retelling of events and portraits of his family are spot on and unforgettable; Mamaw Vance is one of the most vivid characters I have met in any book –fiction included – in the past year. His honest, blow by blow accounts of family dysfunction, like his mother’s repeated meltdowns, can be painful to read, but it’s impossible not to turn the page. Also impressive is J.D.’s honesty in how terribly unprepared he was life in the world of upward social mobility, when he had not the slightest idea how to dress for a job interview with a recruiters from big law firms or even how to use a salad fork.
But what has won this book so much renown is the picture it creates of, as the book cover says, “a culture in crisis.” This is the culture of working class America that has taking a beating ever since the Reagan era when the steel mills and manufacturing plants began moving overseas in search of cheap labor; and the jobs that didn’t move away were threatened by automation. We get a picture of a community plagued with underemployment and low wage service jobs, where opportunities for a better life lies elsewhere, yet where most refuse to make to effort at a better life, clinging to the old and the familiar, even as it drags them down. J.D. makes it clear that this poverty is a state of mind, a culture of “learned hopelessness,” where everyone believes that there is nothing they can do to improve their circumstances; that the system is against them, and always will be. His life refutes this belief, but he makes it clear that it takes people like his grandparents to give children the stability and love of learning necessary to the have the self confidence – as opposed to self esteem – to make something of themselves. This is a change which must come from within; there is no government program or tax cut for the rich that will impose it from the outside. It’s a brutally honest assessment that flies in the face of the orthodoxies of many sincere liberals and conservatives.
I found myself agreeing with many of J.D.’s observations, such as how many working class Americans became disenchanted with the party FDR and JFK when it became associated with welfare and food stamps; how many in working class America felt that Obama was the embodiment of the Ivy League elitists who had been looking down on them since forever; how comments like “clinging to their religion and guns” was like spit in the face. I have many experiences in my own life that would back this up, and proves that not all the problems between Democrats and the white working class is a matter of racism. J.D. is a conservative, but he is clearly no member of the Tea Party, a rare political person capable of objective reasoning. He makes it plain that there is a role for government in improving the lives of the people of Appalachia, but that bureaucracy and arbitrary rules often make it ineffective.
I’ve seen on more than one online review of HILLBILLY ELEGY by readers like me on such sights as Amazon, Goodreads and Librarything, many of them having come from the same part of the country as the author or from a similar background. Some of them heartily agree with him, others take him to task for being too dismissive of blue collar workers and over estimating the benefits of college and a professional life – that those successful families have more than little of the same “hillbilly” dysfunction in them. Others dislike his insistence that it is solely on the individual to improve his circumstances, that no one can do it all on their own. Many readers relate real life experiences that either affirm or deny J.D. assertions. This is what a real discussion looks like, and it is being done in a polite, but vigorous manner, and not like one of those “national conversations” that politicians are always talking about, the kind where one side lectures and hectors the other; where no one learns anything.
I do wonder what the progressives who champion this book so much will ultimately get out of it? Do they think this explains why Trump beat Clinton so badly among the white working class? Will they stop being so condescending when they say that the white working class always “votes against their interests?” If it makes them realize that change cannot be made by a bunch of well meaning “experts” in a room in Washington D.C. and then imposed from the top down; that culture is more than an affinity for the Confederate flag, pickup trucks, and desire to listen to Toby Keith. If so, then maybe they might learn something. But I doubt it.
Back around 2006, I heard a young DeeJay on a Northern Virginia/Washington D.C. talk radio station refer to the young men and women fighting in Iraq as “dopey kids,” bamboozled by military recruiters. He could make this observation, he said, because he was a recent college graduate and listened to a lot of rap and hip hop, which meant he knew what was really going on the world. Among those so-called “dopey kids” serving his country in Iraq at that time was J.D. Vance. Not long after, that DeeJay was fired, and never heard from again. We know what happened to J.D.
"The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility."
But that's just the surface story. Vance takes us inside the struggle of generations of his family to attain that 'American Dream.'
Vance pulls no punches, discussing the alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and abject poverty that were an everyday part of their lives. But on the flip side of the coin you'll find the strong family ties, the unwavering love, loyalty and determination to persevere and succeed. His family's story is not unique. It's the story of every disenfranchised working class family in America.
Vance is unflinching in his honest exploration of his roots. And I felt privileged to be part of that. The book is read by the author, adding an even more personal touch to his work. And honestly, I would have loved to have met Vance's beloved grandmother "Mamaw, who was an integral part of his own success.
Absolutely fantastic listen!
The author of this memoir, J.D. Vance, is a self-declared hillbilly. He was raised in large part by his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, and spent much of his childhood running around the 'Holler'. When J.D. was growing up, he worried about fending for himself while his mother struggled with drug addiction and one male father-figure after the other went through his life. It made my worries about which SAT test prep class to register my son for seem trivial. What is frightening is that J.D.'s story might not be that unique. And although Vance was able to break his own family's history of poverty, it's not clear that there is any type of legislation or programs that can be implemented to help out other people with similar circumstances. Do I feel like I understand the election or why people voted for Trump? No, but it's a step in the right direction.