The Portsmouth Review

Hillbilly Elegy Book Review

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance Book Review

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.

Hillbilly Elegy
by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis





16 responses to “Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance Book Review”

  1. Joyousreads Avatar

    It’s coming off preachy and though his ideological points has merits, I’m a little short on patience with condescending narrators. At the same time, it’s probably because I’m having a rough Monday and i’m bitchy. Welp.

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      I wonder if people have a different experience with the audio versus the book? While reading, it didn’t feel condescending. And I might have read the wrong tone while reading.

  2. AJ Sterkel Avatar

    Great review! I’m on a waiting list for this book. I’ve spent a lot of time in Kentucky, but I’m not from there, so that’s what got me interested in this story. The cultural differences are fascinating to me.

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      A friend of mine at book club said she was in line at her library for the book – and that there was over 1,000 people ahead of her. The library had 40 copies. I asked what library – surely it couldn’t be our small town library and apparently it was not, she was in town from DC.

  3. Ethan Avatar

    I appreciate the universality of his story. It is fascinating how people from different regions and backgrounds can live through similar situations. I also love being forced out of my comfort zone with book club selections. I’ve read and enjoyed so many books that I wouldn’t have otherwise looked at.

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      Same. There are some books that I never would have read and I discovered that I loved them thanks to my trusted book club!

  4. Melissa (Books and Things) Avatar

    Sounds interesting and I do like how he talks about stoping the blame game and figure out what you can do to make it better. I think that is a universal message. 🙂

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      It sure was very interesting and very illuminating. Always good to see different sides of the equation.

  5. Grace @ Rebel Mommy Book Blog Avatar

    I listened to this one and enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started it but I found it interesting. I thought he brought up a lot on interesting points. Great review!

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      Thanks, Grace! It was indeed very interesting.

  6. Laura Napolitano Avatar
    Laura Napolitano

    I was excited when my bookclub decided to read this for April. There was such a long waiting list on the book that I ended up being able to get my hands on the audio version sooner. I enjoyed his historical accounts and personal accounts of growing up in the mid-west as a son of hillbillies.

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      I enjoyed this as well. I learned a lot more than I thought I would and it was so much better than expected.

  7. Dragonfly @ Our Familiarium Avatar

    I read this one right after the elections because the marketing was everywhere about this book being THE BOOK to understand what happened in the elections. I loved it. Gave it a 5-star review on my blog 🙂

    1. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

      I actually read your review, found it on Bloglovin’! I’m glad you loved this one, it really was eye opening.

  8. The Portsmouth Review Avatar

    After I finish a review, I often do a search on Bloglovin’ to check out other reviews on the same book. Found yours and ran right to it! I believe I commented on it as well.

    1. Dragonfly Our Familiarium Avatar
      Dragonfly Our Familiarium

      oh my! sorry for replying to your comment so late! some how I missed this comment! Thank you for visiting my blog 🙂

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