When this book was picked for book club, I was skeptical. It just isn’t something I would pick up on my own. Judging from the description, I assumed this book would be filled with extreme right-wing political rhetoric. I’m more of a middle-of-the-road person, with the exception of my feminist leanings, and extreme point of views on either side turn me off. But that’s not what I got with Hillbilly Elegy.
J.D. Vance discusses his Kentuckian roots and upbringing. He reaches far back to before he was born, delving into the great migration of Kentuckian hillbillies to Ohio, which included his grandparents. They migrated to escape a suffering economy and for other reasons. They worked hard and did well, achieving the middle-class dream. His mother, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well despite having many of things her parents did not as a child.
“Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
Vance goes on to explain growing up in a broken home: his mother and her many men, his mother’s drug and alcohol problem, father and step-fathers coming and going, doing poorly in school, his mother being arrested – on more than one occasion. The neighborhoods that used to thrive were in a state of descent and the jobs that were plentiful were being lost to mine and factory closings. He might have become another disillusioned youth if it weren’t for the intervention of his grandparents. He eventually went to live with them, and his life improved. His grades went up and he found a path out of his dying neighborhood.
“In other words, despite all of the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home. And that just might have saved me.”
Vance joined the military and dedicated four years of his life. Using the GI Bill after discharge, he went to college, graduating at the top of his class. Unbelievably, he got accepted into Yale Law School.
“Yale Law School was like nerd Hollywood, and I never stopped feeling like an awestruck tourist.”
There he found himself to be the exception. His peers never knew the problems he faced as a child. They were the sons and daughters of politicians, doctors, and lawyers. He was a hillbilly with a thick accent, had fought overseas, and had no knowledge of dinner etiquette. He wanted to belong, and often lied about his roots.
Throughout the book he ponders on the white working class and why so many of them in the rust belt and Appalachia seem to be struggling.
“It would be years before 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.”
Vance makes some political statements such as wondering why he can’t afford more food while working several jobs on his way up the ladder, but watching someone on food stamps buy steak. In the same pages, he notes that the ones who say they are working, aren’t really working and blaming everything on Obama for shutting down the mines. His views aren’t extreme right or left as he notes problems along the full political spectrum.
“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.”
“I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”
A glaring issue for me is that J.D. Vance claims to be a hillbilly. He had a tough upbringing and he didn’t schmooze with the east coast elites, but a hillbilly he was not. He spent time with his extended family back in Kentucky, but he didn’t grow up there. He grew up in a middle-class broken home, like many all across the nation did. He feels connected to his hillbilly roots because of his lineage. You could say he’s trans-hillbilly. (chuckles)
Hillbilly Elegy is a great read for anyone but I really believe that this book would be extremely beneficial to teenagers and young adults just starting out in life.
by J.D. Vance