Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
by J.D. Vance
source: borrowed hardcover and audiobook from the library
From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.
Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.
Hillbilly Elegy seems to be everywhere lately. The author was even an ABC News election night commentator. Ironically, I finished reading the book just hours before election results were announced.
Hillbilly Elegy is interesting and eye-opening memoir, reminiscent of The Glass Castle. Vance shares his experiences openly and in the process changed my perception of 'hillbilly culture'. The writing is very good and, as it turns out, Vance is also a fine audiobook narrator.
The book, however, is not as strong from a big picture/social commentary standpoint... which leads to my, probably mistaken, expectations. Is the book a memoir or a social exposé? I was hoping for some equal combination, but doubt that was the author's intent.
My personal 4-star rating reflects my (mistaken) expectations. Hillbilly Elegy is easily a 5-star memoir.