J.D. Vance is a hillbilly. At least that's how he would refer to himself. It's an odd description of oneself since hillbillies usually do not conjure up admiring images in most American minds. Typically, some combination of the Beverly Hillbillies and the banjo playing child from Deliverance flashes in our mind. While some truths maybe be lined in those hillbilly characterizations, they are certainly not an exhaustive representation.
Hillbilly Elegy is the memoir of J.D. Vance. J.D. is a product of the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky and the Ohio Rust Belt. J.D.'s Grandparents (Mamaw and Papa) left the mountains of Kentucky for Southern Ohio, after World War II, in search for a better life. In a lot of ways they found it, in many ways they didn't.
J.D. grew up with his mom and a revolving door or male companions she cycled through. After his biological father left the family when he was young, J.D. was constantly saddled with the feeling of if not when the next male figure would make his exit. Between the constant emotional wrestling from living with his abusive and drug addicted mother, and the shuffling of men in his life, stability is not something J.D. was well aquatinted with. If that was not enough of an obstacle to overcome, J.D. found himself caught in a downward spiral of two worlds. He was influenced by the hillbilly culture that was formed in the "holler", and now was trying to survive in a postindustrial Midwestern town. His hillbilly culture taught him that screaming, fighting, and running away was an acceptable avenue for conflict resolution. You upheld your families honor with brutal violence. You spoke of hard work, God, and patriotism even if you didn't always display those virtues or see that lived out around you. He learned firsthand that addiction and failed marriages are a common occurrence. In his postindustrial Ohio town he learned that chasing your dreams is meant for other people, other towns. He learned that the outlook for kids like him is bleak, and nothing around him indicates otherwise. Pessimism is not just and outlook, but a way of life. Yet from those life lessons and circumstances, J.D. Vance graduated from Ohio State University and Yale Law School. From a place where dreams were not just crushed, but dreams were never even had, J.D. Vance dream was realized. To get knocked down and still get up is commendable, but to pull yourself up and out of, when every statistic and circumstance is pulling you back down, that's a miracle. That’s the story of J.D. Vance.
Memoirs are quite possibly my favorite genre of book, so I am kind of a memoir snob. In addition to that, I have heard nothing but praise for this book. I was ready to be disappointed. I couldn't have been more pointed (that's the opposite of disappointed right?). Hillbilly Elegy is a wonderfully written and insightful book. While this is the story of a particular person, Vance does a wonderful job of using his and his family’s experience, to paint a picture of Southern Appalachian sub-culture. Of course, this won’t represent everyone, but provided a perspective into a culture I had little experience with. Vance's ability to provide insight came of particular interest to me in the light of our last Presidential election. Again, that is not to say his experience and perception represents all and can explain a broad and complex issue, but it was insightful to say the least. I was also impressed with Vance's ability to walk the cliffs edge of describing his experiences, but also periodically interjecting his thoughts and assessments on particular issues, especially now that he is on the other side of the experience. While I can appreciate letting the details speak for themselves and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions, I am also always curious on the author’s analysis of the situation. They have lived an experience that I haven't, and I am reading not only for the story, but for their thoughts as well. Hillbilly Elegy is a prime example of how one can tell a story and give an opinion simultaneously.
One of the conclusions Vance presented, that I appriciated, is the way we (society) typically take an either or approach to problems. Let’s take poverty as an example. Historically, liberals will conclude that this particular problem is due to oppressive societal factors (i.e. it’s out of the persons control), while conservatives will conclude that the issue is due to personal choices and lack of personal responsibility (i.e. it’s all due to the personal choices). Yet, it’s absurd to think a problem like poverty is singularly an "either" society "or" personal choice issue. The possibility that it could be both gets lost in the desire to be right. Of course it can, and probably most often is, due to both factors! The percentage of each factor will likely fluctuate from situation to situation, but the quicker we can realize that both issues needs to be addressed, the faster we can actually effect change. It's possible to promote social equality and personal responsibility in the same breath.
One critique I did have of the book was his seemingly inconsistent assessment of Christianity. It was not his conclusions on if Christianity was true or not, but his seemingly inconsistent critiquing of how people expressed their faith. Vance was very critical of his father’s legalistic expression on his faith (personally I agreed with Vance). However, he didn't seem to apply the same critique to his Mamaw for her verbal expression of faith in God, but showing no daily discernible signs of how that faith impacted her life. If we are going to be critical of those who profess faith and live it out with an oppressive legalistic expression, we need to apply those same standards to those who profess a faith and yet don't show any signs of it in their daily lives. Both approaches can be hypocritical, but he seemed to take issue with just one.
Hillbilly Elegy lived up to the hype for me. It gave me a lot to think about and provided a perspective into a culture I knew little about. I think this is an excellent read for anyone today. Not because everyone will agree with it, but because it does a wonderful job of providing a perspective, and sometimes perspective does wonders
I love everything about books. The feel of the page between your fingers, the sound of a book spine cracking, even the smell of an old dust jacket. Looking to share that passion with others.