August 20, 2018

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy:A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

by J.D. Vance

Genres: Autobiography, Nonfiction, Politics
Publisher: Harper
Length: 257 pages
Published: June 28, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 2 out of 5 stars (did not finish)

Official Book Summary:

"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.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. 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. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country."


"Psychologists call it 'learned helplessness' when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life."


"Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me. In kindergarten, when the teacher asked me where I lived, I could recite the address without skipping a beat, even though my mother changed addresses frequently, for reasons I never understood as a child. Still, I always distinguished 'my address' from 'my home.' My address was where I spent most of my time with my mother and sister, wherever that might be. But my home never changed: my great-grandmother's house, in the holler, in Jackson, Kentucky."

My Book Review:

As a preface, I did not finish this book so take my review for what it is worth. The author, J. D. Vance, tells the story of his life growing up in "hillbilly" culture. Vance portrays hillbillies as a racist, violent, alcohol- and drug-addicted, lazy, and deadbeat culture (his descriptions, not mine).

I quickly felt that Hillbilly Elegy had a political agenda. As opposed to focusing on memoir with embedded arguments--something along the lines of The Glass Castle or Educated that tell experiences of growing up amid devastating poverty, each with their own moral implications--Vance tells his story in order to use it as a vehicle to build a platform for a career in politics. In so doing, he critiques the scapegoat failures of big business, the education system, and the government.

I picked up the book because it was marketed as a memoir, so I set did not finish it when politics too over. While many readers have enjoyed this book, it was not what I was looking to read at the time.

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