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

After the results of the 2016 election, I found myself asking one question repeatedly: how did this happen? I was very troubled by the fact that many of my fellow Americans voted for a man who, in my opinion, used incredibly hateful rhetoric during a campaign that was otherwise filled with a lack of productive ideas to move this country forward. However, through my own frustrations and disappointment with Mr. Trump, I failed to genuinely consider how some of what he said may have been exactly what many middle Americans had been waiting to hear for a long time. To begin to understand his appeal to voters in the Rust Belt, I reached for J.D. Vance’s memoir entitled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. 

In this memoir, Vance eloquently chronicles his life growing up in the poor Appalachian town of Middletown, OH. Through the lens of his rather tumultuous childhood Vance offers poignant sociological commentary on the inner workings of the white working class and its overall decline over the past four decades.

JD Vance writes in a way that is incredibly thought-provoking and moving. His story humanizes a group of people that are often cast aside and misunderstood, especially by New Englanders and people of color like myself. As he reveals his complicated family life and struggle with living at or below the poverty line, Vance astutely draws connections between the problems facing the white working class and other extremely marginalized groups such as African Americans. Furthermore, his introspective reflection on the impact that “hillbilly culture” has on upward mobility was particularly interesting and important to my understanding of the Vance family and the white working class in general.

Ultimately, I reached for this book to lean about a group of people that I may have jumped to conclusions about, and Vance did not disappoint. I realized that many of the experiences that many members of the white working class with shared with some of the other marginalized groups in this country. If you’re looking to read a truly eye-opening story that will leave you with a greater understanding of your fellow Americans in Appalachia, look no further.

5 out of 5 stars

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“To understand the significance of this cultural detachment, you must appreciate that much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country…Mamaw and Papaw taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood. Whenever times were tough–when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth–I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to made the good choices that others hadn’t…If Mamaw’s second God was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to religion. The tie that bound them to their neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished…President Obama came on the scene right when so many people in my community began to believe that the modern meritocracy was not built for them.”
-p. 189-91.

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