#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“You will not read a more important book about America this year.“–The Economist
“A riveting book.”–The Wall Street Journal
“Essential reading.”—David Brooks, New York Times
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.
My Review | Hillbilly Elegy
My perception of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is from the view of someone who grew up in a family of Scots-Irish, likely having descended from immigrants who landed in upper East Tennessee, also home to a stretch of Appalachia.
My family background is somewhat like Vance’s but not in the extreme his exposed him to alcohol and drug addictions; a mother victim to both and who opened her door to a variety of men; poverty; and constant fighting at home. Some of these touched my family but in lesser ways. My mother reached the outer boundaries of Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw, with her temperament.
What Vance has accomplished in Hillbilly Elegy is to paint the story of his family experience in Appalachia, which reaches into the Midwest where it is often labeled the Rust Belt. Despite his mother’s best efforts to parent him and his sister, she failed miserably. The constant flow of men confounded Vance because he longed for that father figure who had left him as an infant.
However, male relatives did place strong examples in front of him. Together with these people and his grandparents (who loved and hated each other equally), Vance completed his high school education, four years in the Marines, college at Ohio State, and graduated Yale Law. Today he is a successful business man. Vance gives credit to Mamaw for always making sure he knew she loved him no matter how tough she was on him and providing him a place to call home.
Vance’s story flows beautifully with descriptive language, both for his characters/family members and others and the areas where he has lived. I found his story sad, heartbreaking at times, and at the same time one his family should be proud of him for surviving.
Media, both press and TV, have touted Hillbilly Elegy as providing the answer to the outcome of the election of 2016. Not once are the names of any politicians mentioned, nor the results of the election or campaign debates. Vance simply states the current mindset of those living in this area of our country: forgotten, jobless, often homeless, uneducated, poor, in poor health, hungry, unable to better themselves.
If they have no means to turn themselves around and better themselves, the cycle moves through the successive generations to come. It isn’t that they have chosen to live this way. No options to the contrary are available. They look for promise–promise of a better tomorrow, a better future for their children, a place to work and earn a living to give shelter and food for their families. They don’t need someone who appears or sounds elitist to them. They need someone who speaks their language–tough, bully pulpit, argumentative, strong, and controlling. This is what JD Vance’s story tells us.
In search of an academic look at the 2016 election? Look elsewhere.
Wanting to learn more about folks who have lived on the margin for decades? Pick up Vance’s book.
Enjoy reading a book telling the story of a young man who survived and rose up strong? Buy JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.
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 The New York Times and has appeared on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC.
Currently, J.D. works as a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs, Casper and Pippin.
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