Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance.
Former Marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance has an unconventional background for a man with such credentials: he grew up in poor, dysfunctional, hillbilly family from northern Kentucky, mostly living in the lower-class neighborhoods of Middletown, Ohio. His mother was a drug abuser who subjected him and his older sister to a series of husbands and boyfriends, who were neglectful or abusive or at best, temporarily decent. Any stability he had in his childhood came from his maternal grandparents who were fiercely supportive, even if they had issues of their own. J.D.’s grandmother is a character from the Beverly Hillbillies, without the the silly humor, with the shotgun firmly in hand, and with the addition of some salty language that wouldn’t have been appropriate in a TV sitcom. His grandfather was a taciturn man, a former alcoholic, who supported J.D. mainly by spending time with him, availability being nine-tenths of the job requirement for a substitute father-figure.
The book definitely reminded me of my family’s lower middle class background. The violence and drug abuse in Vance’s family are mostly absent from mine, but some other forms of family dysfunction are quite familiar. Divorce, alcoholism, and poor educational choices and opportunities have dogged my working class white family, too, with some members of the family being able to move past those limitations while others became mired in their own generational poverty and family dysfunction.
It’s rather funny to read a selection of the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads for this book. Lots of people from inside and outside the Appalachian culture that Vance describes laud his deep insights into and vivid depiction of hillbilly culture. Others insist that Vance doesn’t have clue what he’s talking about, that his insights apply only to his own particular family situation or that his depiction of hillbilly life in the Rust Belt town of Middletown is either too dark or too optimistic.
I thought Mr. Vance had a lot to say about how people are able to grow and change and make good choices, partly despite their family background and partly as a result of clinging to the good parts of the family heritage. Vance’s grandparents were able to leave the Hatfield/McCoy violence and bitterness of the northern Kentucky hills behind and make a better life in Middletown, not a perfect life since they brought a lot of problems (and guns) with them, but a better life. Vance’s birth father was able to find stability and a fulfilling life in his Christian faith and church community. Vance himself was able to draw from the tenacity and love of both of his grandparents to make mostly wise choices about his own life, become a marine, get an education, and eventually write Hillbilly Elegy. Some critics deride Vance’s emphasis on a strong work ethic and moral choices to bring people up out of poverty and dysfunction, but the truth is the truth. A person who works hard and makes good moral choices about important life decisions (don’t abuse drugs and alcohol, marry your sexual partner, do what you need to do to support your family financially, try to get a good education, etc.) is much more likely to graduate from lower class poverty into at least middle class stability and functionality.
The book isn’t really preachy, however. It’s likely only to offend those who have already decided that traditional morality and hard work are useless prescriptions to ameliorate or even cure generational poverty. The author himself doesn’t state or imply that it’s easy or that he didn’t benefit from some fortuitous events and help along the way, such as a full scholarship to Yale Law School. He’s honest and gives credit where credit is due, but he’s also unflinching in his assessment of the flaws and inherent deficiencies that characterized his experience of “hillbilly culture.”
Many readers and reviewers have tried to sell this book as a guide to “why people voted for Trump” or “why Trump was elected president”, especially why lower class and lower middle class white voters were inclined to be Trump supporters. I don’t think that’s the main point of the book, and I don’t really think it’s too helpful in that regard. J.D. Vance’s hillbilly family members may have supported Trump, but they weren’t his only supporters. Don’t read the book to understand Trump voters; instead, read it to understand Appalachian and Rust Belt family dynamics and social mobility and the saga of one hillbilly who lived to tell his own story.