Brief synopsis (Goodreads): 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.
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.
Rating: Travel companion
Long story short: My expectations for this book were largely shaped by reviews that heralded J.D. Vance’s work as an explanation for the way the 2016 elections turned out. That is not the case. While Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting look at Vance’s childhood, it’s also a book written in a vacuum that can’t be applied to any community outside of Vance’s working-class Appalachia.
Perhaps the most telling critique of Hillbilly Elegy is the fact that Vance wants us to look at how class and the family environment affect the poor without filtering our views through a “racial prism” (8). This is problematic because it’s an incomplete story. Yes, their struggles are valid, but it’s also important to acknowledge that their race didn’t add an additional barrier to them being successful.
The fact that Vance chooses to ignore racial tensions is especially ironic considering that he spends about a quarter of the book talking about how hillbillies were immigrants in their own rights. For example, when his grandparents moved from rural Kentucky to the moderately populated community of Middletown, Ohio, they had a difficult time adapting, and were often called out for behaving differently than Middletown “natives”. The reason they moved in the first place? To give their children a better life. Cue major eye-rolls. That’s basically what immigrant parents want for their children: to give them the opportunity to be more successful than they were. The fact that many current residents of Appalachia seem to have forgotten this history (along with the fact that their distant relatives literally came from a different continent) is not only extremely hypocritical, but a form of immense privilege.
When attempting to justify why working-class Appalachia largely didn’t relate to Obama in 2008 Vance says, “Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him” (191).
First of all, while there may have been some overlap between Obama’s and your community’s adversity, because of his race Obama had to overcome a lot more. Even after taking office claims that he was Muslim or a Jihadi terrorist persisted. No White president has ever been accused of being a terrorist, even though most attacks in the U.S. are carried out by White, Christian males.
Second, of course he faced adversity before you knew him. Being in a position to run for President implies that you’ve overcome certain obstacles to be there in the first place! And why does somebody have to currently be going through a hard time for you to empathize? Aren’t you asking the reader to understand what motivates you now because of all that you’ve been through? Can you not extend that same courtesy to somebody else?
But it gets better: in the same breath, Vance asks for our sympathy: “I am a tall, white, straight male. I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale” (201). I don’t say this lightly: I literally can’t even.
I’m going to end my review there in case my brain implodes. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I would love to hear your thoughts. I have more things to say, but need some time to unpack it all.