“Hillbilly Elegy” is an insightful social commentary about the struggles currently being faced by members of the white, Appalachian working class. Its author, J.D. Vance, is uniquely qualified to provide this commentary because he was raised in this socioeconomic group and overcame serious obstacles to attend Yale law school as well as build a strong, healthy marriage.
I’ve recently begun to really worry about some of the things that are happening in the U.S. Part of my problem is that I’m stuck in bed, not interacting with many people, and the TV is droning sensationalized news stories in the background for most of the day. But I don’t think I’m completely overreacting. There are things going on that are weakening the fabric of our country. I read “Hillbilly Elegy” in an effort to understand some of this. (Ironically, I heard about the book when the author appeared on one of those sensationalized news shows, “Morning. Joe”.)
About the first 20% of the book is heavy on content about this subset of our culture. The author is very candid about his heritage, stating, “From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.” He then sets out to paint a picture of “how class and family affect the poor.” In fact, he believes family – how they treat each other, set examples, and the domestic atmosphere they create – has a lot to do with whether the cycle of misery perpetuates itself throughout future generations. It’s hard to argue with. He also suggests that simply providing new jobs won’t stop the cycle of poverty if people aren’t capable of being good enough employees to actually keep those jobs (definitely something I’ve witnessed.) And he criticizes politicians for using too much rhetoric along the lines of “your government has failed you” because that just perpetuates that self-defeating myth that all the social and economic woes are beyond one’s own control, that it’s someone else’s fault. Plus, Mr. Vance doesn’t believe the issues of this socioeconomic group can be fixed by government policy. It’s hard to legislate fundamental cultural change.
The middle of the book is a very personal account of the author’s upbringing within this white, working class hillbilly culture. His home life was extremely disruptive. His father gave him up for adoption, leaving him and his sister to be raised by his mom, a woman who had a revolving door of “father figures” coming in and out of her children’s lives. She was a drug addict who was often hostile to her kids. Fortunately, the author’s grandmother played a large role in his life and kept him on track with things like school and provided a lot of the basic safety and nurturing kids need. In fact, Mr. Vance credits her with saving him from getting stuck in the cycle of poverty and misery. He also had other good influences like teachers and the marine corps and, eventually, law school professors and peers.
In fact, in the last part of the book, he talks a lot about the importance of having a strong network of people in one’s life. This was important to him as a kid because of the need for stability and to learn basic values and life lessons. It then became important to him as an adult because he needed help navigating Yale law school and his subsequent law career. In this part of the book, he also makes the very important point that even though he seems to have risen out of his difficult background, parts of it keep trying to yank him back down. For example, his mother became homeless when she broke up with her latest man and the author had to set her up with housing as well as try to help her get her finances sorted. Coincidentally, I was recently watching a show during which the panelists were discussing the fact that many low income black college students struggle in college not due to the difficulty of the coursework but because of familial distractions. It’s hard to break a cycle when it keeps trying to suck you back in.
In the conclusion, the author admits that he doesn’t know what the solution is. This is a complicated issue. But Mr. Vance does say, “… it starts when we (meaning working class whites) stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” You can’t legislate that.
Okay, this “review” was probably more like a book report sprinkled with my own social opinions, but this book really got my juices flowing! If you’re interested in learning one perspective about working class whites from a man who’s lived it, read “Hillbilly Elegy”!
Read any good books recently about culture or society? Let me know about them. Keep those comments coming!
12 thoughts on ““Hillbilly Elegy”, by J.D. Vance”
Ironically, I viewed the author’s TED Talk earlier today, before seeing your blog.
I’ve been reading NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s book, A Path Ahead: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities. It’s interesting from a variety of standpoints. I highly recommend it.
Great minds… How was the TED Talk?
My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
John F. Kennedy
“Ich bin ein donut.” That JFK?
(Sorry, couldn’t resist. JFK does that to me sometimes. Okay, a lot.)
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I hate to ruin the fun, Chip, but that story’s actually an urban myth in non-German-speaking countries. “Ich bin ein Berliner” meant what it was supposed to mean when said in Berlin – although his pronunciation was far from perfect, apparently! ‘Berliner’ is a nickname for a donut in the north, west, and south of the country, but not in Berlin or the surrounding areas. Its real German name is ‘pfannkuchen’.
Still a good joke 🙂
Another great review, Michelle.
A couple months ago I read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Same type milieu, but set in the Missouri Ozarks. And it’s fiction. But it’s another lens through which we can see (and understand) the lives of the rural poor. Plus it’s a rip-rockin’ story told in gorgeous prose–Woodrell makes the down-home Bootheel dialogue sing like poetry. “Hillbilly Elegy” would have been an apt title for his book too.
Thanks for sharing!
Hi Amy! I remember when Winter’s Bone was released as a movie and the story sounded really intense. Thanks for the book recommendation. It’s now on my library wish list.
Don’t worry about my cousins too much. When the world melts down completely, there will be a few places humans survive just fine. Appalachia will be one of those places.
Mainstream American culture says it’s perfectly fine to laugh at ridge-runners. It’s encouraged. Even Republicans do it. After all, piney-woods folks are so well-stocked with White Privilege that they can roll with all the punches Stuart and Colbert can deliver to tens of millions of Americans sniggering into their stemless wine glasses in their comfortable living rooms.
Not to go into the history behind it, but here’s a peek into the Hillbilly Mind: That Vance is a doctor is meaningful only because he can be helpful. That he went to Yale means nothing. ETSU would have been fine. Yale only means something to credentialed types in well-heeled society.
What gets a ridge-runner to stop running ridges? A decision that is renewed over and over again throughout a lifetime. That is picked up by the children and then by their children. It is internal, individual, and carries all the resolve that crazy Scots-Irish can muster — which is insanely strong. I’m not saying that good roads or access to a decent dentist or the internet aren’t good things. They are, and thank you, outside world.
But it’s the decision that “I’m not going to live this way anymore. I chose something better” that gets one of us off the mountain. Until then, well-meaning outsiders, especially the federal government, had better just leave them alone.
My father will deny it, but we aren’t that far off the mountain. It’s something I have in common with the Kansans of Mexican descent who tell you right up front that they CANNOT speak Spanish.
I have come close to reading this book after hearing Vance on the radio — English radio, I think, maybe NPR. Maybe English radio on NPR.
Those cultural attitudes aren’t holding anybody back. It is the conceit of the sophisticated to hold the belief that somehow they can sweep in and fix stuff. Always, always, it is decision and follow-through. You know, O’Brolachán, how that works. Your folks probably came over as less than dirt, and by the 1960s, none of that mattered except in the old Irish hell-holes on the East Coast.
Sure, roads, clean water, libraries, internet access, even state-sponsored medicine are things that can be carefully inserted into the Appalachian landscape that allow for improvements, aka, changed lives. But try to force that by political action and meet with a stone wall and utter failure.
Thanks for the comments, Chip!
If you want some more insight into Ridgerunner Life, talk to me. I know a little bit. And I have friends even closter to it than I have ever been. Some excellent books to follow up on this with are these:
Jim Webb’s “Born Fighting”
and the awesome Abraham Verghese’s “My Own Country.” This is an OLD book. You will learn things here that you are unlikely to learn anywhere else without great difficulty.
Thanks, Michelle, this is one of my favorite topics!
Those both look great. Thanks for the recommendations!
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