My husband wanted to read Hillbilly Elegy so he bought himself a copy. After he was done I picked it up so we could discuss it. It intrigued both of us because of the current political climate.
About Hillbilly Elegy:
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 forty 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.
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 piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
About the Author:
J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs.
I will be the first person to admit that I am not a big reader of non-fiction, unless it is history. I’m a big fan of history. Memoirs are probably my second least favorite thing to read but I’d heard many a good thing about Hillbilly Elegy and given the current political climate I thought it might be illuminating. I will note going in to this review that while I am not a child of Appalachia my background has many similarities to the author’s. My childhood was challenging but not near as horrifying as Mr. Vance’s. His mother and I are of an age. I am (at least on one side) of the Scotch-Irish descent he describes. Neither of my parents went to college – my father barely got through high school. I grew up in a big city though, at least until I was 12, then we moved to a very rural area so I made the opposite life change that he did. In a lot of ways this made the book somewhat personal. In other ways I was far removed from the story.
I will note that the beginning of the story, I would say the first 4 or 5 chapters were more compelling than the balance of the book. That part focused more on Mr. Vance’s early life and presented the hillbilly part of the memoir. I will admit that this part of the book left me, if anything, angry. Angry at the attitudes he portrayed and wondering at what caused them to grow. Because again, I had grown up with some similar issues and yet I had grown out of it with hard work and a bit of education. Laziness was never part of my life – until retirement when it’s allowed.
So where did this laziness come from? This is the big question and apparently there are no answers. Some people can get out of bad circumstances but it seems that it’s epidemic in this area and that is sad. And it makes me angry.
The rest of the book, being a memoir carries the reader through Mr. Vance’s time as a Marine and acceptance to Yale Law School. This section of the book was not as interesting for me. It seemed that the author just went to law school because he didn’t want to have anything to do with blood. As if the only options available to him were doctor or lawyer. Once there he was by his own description a fish out of water but he was fortunate to have a great mentor in one professor. He also met the woman who would become his wife.
Overall I did enjoy the book. It engendered a lot of strong emotions and lots of great discussion with my husband as he had read the book before me. His childhood was far more stable than mine so he didn’t read into some things as I did, although I will note that he is also Scotch Irish. Hmmmm.
It is, I feel a book worth reading and may call for a second go through. There is a lot that needs to be done in this area of our country but it is going to take forward thinking. Looking back is not going to get anything done.
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