Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

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Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-fiction, memoir

Hillbilly Elegy has certainly been making the rounds lately, with J.D. Vance appearing on numerous talk shows. His book has been marketed out the wazoo as something all liberal-minded individuals should read to provide insight into the mysterious “Trump voter”. This memoir has been talked up as one of the most informative books published in 2016 on the plight of working-class whites.

In reality, Hillbilly Elegy is just a memoir, and to be honest, not an incredibly remarkable one at that. And, in my case, one of those instances where a book definitely did not live up to the hype.

I will fully admit, about 1/3 of the way into the book, I started to realize I had completely misplaced expectations as to what I was reading. I was expecting something that was half memoir, and half social commentary and analysis. Hillbilly Elegy is not that. What it is, in my opinion, is 90% memoir, and 10% minor social commentary, that sometimes contradicts itself.

This book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

J.D. Vance was raised by an abusive, drug-addicted mother in Middletown, Ohio, a Rust Belt town not too far removed from the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Vance’s family spent summers visiting the rural Appalachian community in Kentucky where his grandparents were born and raised.

The subtitle claims that this is an elegy, and a memoir, for the Appalachian culture of his grandparents. Writing a family memoir is one thing, writing the “memoir” for an entire culture, based purely on your own experiences, I find highly presumptuous. J.D. Vance is doing a great disservice to the very people he is trying to help. His story is one of upward mobility, and to that end, it is a very enlightening read. But it is not an adequate “memoir” of an entire culture.

J.D. Vance escaped the life he was raised in, despite his addicted mother, a revolving door of fathers, and a community that was struggling with many of the same problems. It should therefore come as no surprise that there is a strong sense of ‘bootstrappery’ about his beliefs – pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps. That it is up to yourself, not the government, to make your life better.

While J.D. Vance may be making some mass generalizations (that seem to play to both the liberal and conservatives stereotypes of Appalachia), there is no denying that there is some truth to what he says. He brings up some interesting points, but I find that he is too quick to blame the poor for their own misfortunes.

Take this excerpt:

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.

In the next paragraph he does mention one barrier to full-time employment: the fact that in many areas, the only jobs available are part-time. But then he leaves that idea in the dust, and doesn’t come back to it again. He spends very little time on the disappearance of blue-collar jobs, and what it truly means to be isolated from the educated, American “mainstream”.

If Hillbilly Elegy was solely a story about upward mobility, a conversation about what it is like to be stuck in a community that can not seem to keep up with the present, this would have been a good book. When he starts to ruminate about poverty in all of Appalachia, and simplify it to a message that is predominantly – “do better, work harder” he lost me as a fan. He is definitely not mean-spirited, possibly more of the “tough love” approach (which may explain Amy Chua’s endorsement on the back of the cover, author of  Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother!). Ultimately, I felt that he was pigeon-holing an entire community into categories of dysfunction and laziness. Something that should sound awfully familiar to African-Americans, who have been subjected to many of the same stereotypes.

Which brings me to one final point about something missing from this book. Vance seems to be writing for Appalachia as a whole, but at no time does he ever bring up the issue of race. Appalachia is often painted as poor, rural, and white. Once again, the Appalachian’s who are PoC are erased from existence. The fact is, Appalachia does not have one story, one voice, and it does a disservice to the region every time that it is painted in such a way.

While reading Hillbilly Elegy, I added White Trash: The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg to my TBR list. I hope it will provide more of the in-depth analysis that I am looking for right now.

Rating: 2.5/5 stars.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review – Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  1. Great review! I really like how you had such different opinions about the reasons why the region is poor. I completely agree with you, even though I’ve never read the book. From what i’ve heard The 400 Year Untold Story (…) is way better than this one in the sense that it is more scientific and the conclusions that the author reached are much more representative. I will be adding that one to my list as well!

    • Thank you! I’m not sure when I’ll get around to reading The 400-Year Old Untold Story, but I’m hoping it is more representative than Hillbilly Elegy. I have since spoken to a few people I know that grew up in rural Appalachia (living in NC, they aren’t too hard to find!), and none are a fan of his at the moment.

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