Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, is a memoir documenting his life in poverty stricken Appalachia. Written by a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, Hillbilly Elegy is the account of a boy and his family growing up in a poor Rust Belt town, offering a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. 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. His 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. However, readers learn that this is only the short, superficial version of Vance’s family story. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America.
Though the book was published in 2016 and has received multiple accolades, I had not seen this book or heard of it until the end of last year. I had it on my TBR (to be read) list and was fortunate enough to have a friend lend it to me this year. Usually when I read stories like Vance’s I connect because they remind me of home, or atleast I feel I can share some sort of bond with the author. Though Hillbilly Elegy is set in Kentucky and Ohio, I was interested in reading this book because it is similar to the social climate and culture of West Virginia. Let me point out here that Vance only vaguely mentions West Virginia in his view of Appalachia, seemingly because his focal point is Kentucky and Ohio. As mentioned in the book, poverty, drug use, overdoses, and poor economy tend to overshadow the kind-hearted people, unique culture, and natural beauty that Appalachia has to offer. Personally, growing up in Kanawha County, and now working in Jackson County (coincidentally the same name as the town Vance’s family is from), I have seen similar situations and people that Vance describes in his book. Though his story wasn’t necessarily unique, it is representative of the many lives in Appalachia.
As Vance points out, Appalachia is full of contradictions. An example being the hard working husband who will do all he can to keep food on the table compared to the father who has eight children he cannot support because he will not get a job. The beauty that comes when the seasons begin to change is overshadowed by the run down trailer homes with trash littering the yard, taking away from the Appalachian charm. One of Vance’s points is that though the good should be acknowledged, it would be ignorance to not also acknowledge the bad. How can one make an honest assessment that leads to change when the worst parts are simply left untouched? From the introduction Vance is extremely blunt. His viewpoints, generated by his past experiences, are at times harsh and critical. Yet, he tells certain stories, like that of his grandparents, with pure affection. One story discusses how his Mamaw supposedly shot a man for stealing the family cow, while the next mentions her love for children and spending any spare money she had on school supplies and shoes for the neighborhood’s poorest children. (Again, Appalachia is full of contradictions).
Overall, I had mixed feelings about Hillbilly Elegy. It started slowly but picked up at various points which allowed me to somewhat enjoy reading certain chapters of the book. The most raw and honest moments describing his relationship with his grandparents and mother were really the only parts that held my attention. At times the narrative strayed and was difficult to follow. The book gained momentum when Vance discussed his family, yet when he drifted towards information, opinion, and statistics about the culture I lost interest. Honestly, there were times I had to skim through the chapters. The beginning was slow, the middle was great, and the end was lackluster. The book was certainly thought-provoking if not anything else. Overall, it was an inspiring story that I connected to through the cultural similarities, however, I never found myself fully interested in the finishing this book. This book is a New York Times Bestseller, has top ratings on Amazon, and is even set to be made into a major-motion picture by Ron Howard. Unfortunately, this is one of the first times I have found such an acclaimed book to be overrated and underwhelming. Though I have mixed feelings about Hillbilly Elegy, I encourage others to give it a chance. I believe someone who is not familiar with Appalachian culture and has never witnessed similar experiences may not only find this book thought-provoking but truly interesting and enjoyable.
Book: Hillbilly Elegy
Author: J.D. Vance
Publisher: Harper; Reprint edition (June 28, 2016)
Pages: Hardcover, 272 pages
Purchasing Information: Amazon has it on sale for $14.96 hardcover and $7.99 paperback.