Updated: Mar 30
I had seen Hillbilly Elegy "A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" by J.D. Vance floating around during the last presidency race and have had it on my bookshelf for a number of months. I enjoy reading memoirs because I find I can relate to some pieces of the author's life and they are very thought provoking. I decided to listen to Hillbilly Elegy on audio and was not disappointed. Disclaimer: You do not have to be interested or involved in politics to find this book insightful, but some of the references are timely, given the last political race and election. J.D. Vance narrates his book, which really drives it home to the listener.
J.D. Vance is a former marine and Yale Law School graduate who grew up in a poor rust belt town and came from humble beginnings. His memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, is as much about his childhood and family dynamics as it is a case study on the poverty stricken areas in rural America and the white working-class Americans who reside there. This group of Americans is a culture stuck in the past and is slowly declining. Vance brings the harsh reality to light in a way that makes you self reflect and wonder what you can do to help.
Vance's grandparents grew up in the rural Kentucky Appalachia region, where they did not have much to their name other than their pride. They moved to Ohio in hopes of escaping the crippling poverty and better the lives of their children. Vance's grandparents lived a middle class life in the suburbs, but their Appalachian roots still followed them. As the saying goes, "you can take the man out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the man." Most of Vance's family members struggled with the demands of their middle class life, as well as abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma.
Vance's mother suffered from addiction and domestic abuse, which surrounded and influenced Vance his entire childhood. He endured traumatic experiences as a child, including being present when his mother was arrested and having to testify in court, witnessing his mother fight with almost all of her boyfriends, and watching a parade of men walk in and out of his life. He carried the anger and resentment with him daily, suppressed deep down in his young mind. Vance's home life was unstable, but he had an older sister, Lindsey, that helped him through the hard times. His grandmother also swooped in at a crucial point in his teenage years. He lived with her the last couple years of high school and she gave him the stable home he needed to heal and make himself start out on a good foot. From there, he joined the Marines and was deployed to Iraq. After which, he attended college and ultimately decided on Yale Law School. Vance is a pure example of upward mobility in a poverty stricken family. But everything Vance obtained came with many difficulties.
Vance's account in Hillbilly Elegy brings to light the deep rooted culture in poverty stricken areas like the Appalachians. Everything Vance eventually obtained was only made possible because someone along the way saw a child in need, and helped him. Without the help of his grandparents, sister, teachers, and mentors, he would not have known the things that were possible and attainable, even for a poor hillbilly like him. Vance watched family members around him continue on the cycles of their past with their offspring, but him and his sister Lindsey decided to break the cycle. It is something that he is continuing to work on to this day. Vance talks about his anger and how his wife has helped him work past some of his childhood trauma. Those scars run deep and are so ingrained that it takes a long time to not revert back to your old ways. But Vance is a testament that hard work, persistence, and the right motivators and mentors can help your life. Not everyone grows up in a family where "you can be what you want to be" is reinforced in you as a child. Vance is a prime example of this and he openly admits that he did not realize there were opportunities for a "poor hillbilly" like him because he never had anyone help him. Vance's story is one example of a large population of America that losses out on the American dream. They are complacent in their ways and it seems as though no one is coming to help them, so with each generation, the cycle continues. The poverty continues. The abuse continues. The contempt continues. And no one benefits.
I related to a lot of what Vance discussed when it came to his childhood influencing his adult life. I grew up in a lower middle class family in the Midwest and while I received things I physically needed; a roof over my head, bed to sleep in, clothes on my back, public schools to go to, I did not receive the emotional support I needed so desperately. I did not have a huge support system for when I was out in the world on my own and I had to find my own way. I took advice sporadically from teachers and mentors, but mostly paved my own path, not realizing some of the opportunities I could have taken. I grew up fiercely independent, much to my own demise at times. I remember thinking that I only had one option for college and never applied for scholarships because no one pushed or encouraged me to. I was not even aware of how to apply for scholarships. My grades in high school were almost straight As and I could have gotten several scholarships and had my pick of schools, but I was not even aware these were an option. I was the first in my family to attend a four year college and had to figure everything out for myself. Much like Vance, my childhood emotional trauma has followed me into adulthood. I am who I am because of what I experienced as a child, and in spite of it, but it is something I think I will be working on for many years to come.
Hillbilly Elegy is more than just a memoir about J.D. Vance's life, it is about a culture that is alive and well in many parts of America, not just the Appalachia region. We are influenced by those around us and while we might break off as we get older, pieces of our childhood follow us into adulthood and ultimately influence how we parent our children. Vance's call to action in the book is to be aware of this segment of the country and generate conversation so that improvements can be made. There are so many children who had situations like I did growing up and are now repeating the cycle with their own families, never knowing the opportunities they could have taken. Hillbilly Elegy sheds a light on this epidemic and makes you reflect on your surroundings and what you can do to change the future, while honoring your past.
I gave Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance ★★★★.5 and found it incredibly engaging and thought provoking. It is extremely relevant, especially in today's political and cultural climate. I highly recommend it if you enjoy nonfiction, memoirs, and case studies about American culture. This book would also be a create choice for a book club because there are so many pieces that can be digested and discussed.
I also highly recommend the audiobook version. There is something so powerful about an author narrating their story.