Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance– 272 pages
Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.
Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.
My Review: 4 stars
Hillbilly Elegy is a non-fiction page- turner that explores the struggles of the people living in both the Kentucky and Ohio Appalachian region. With this book being discussed both positively and negatively on many reading sites, I knew I had to get to it sooner than later. Thankfully, my personal book club added it to the calendar and a fabulous discussion ensue.
Vance opened my eyes to the thoughts and struggles of growing up with his hillbilly family amid potent drug and alcohol abuse, poor schooling and no role models. Through these detailed and sometimes laugh out loud anecdotes that he provides in his memoir, we begin to understand why these people voted how they did and what they are searching for.
At many times downright depressing, Vance’s story is one that offers hope that the odds can be defied and one can get out of cycle that many people in this region become stuck in. It just takes one person to believe in you and fortunately Vance’s maternal grandmother was his rock. With a foul mouth and a strong sense of protection, she helped him stay on track. With so many bringing him down, having that one person behind you can be life changing.
I’ve found myself bringing up points from this book during social conversations that were either introduced to me or I hadn’t been able to communicate clearly before now. I’m curious to see how his siblings, aunts, uncles and friends feel about his perception of his life. I look forward to doing some research and finding out more about Mr. Vance.
Warning: this book can lead to endless discussion so be prepared.
Quotes I liked:
“We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools—like peace and quiet at home—to succeed.”
-“Pajamas? Poor people don’t wear pajamas. We fall asleep in our underwear or blue jeans. To this day, I find the very notion of pajamas an unnecessary elite indulgence, like caviar or electric ice cube makers.”
-“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.”
-“‘A young man was sitting at home when a terrible rainstorm began. Within hours, the man’s house began to flood, and someone came to his door offering a ride to higher ground. The man declined, saying, ‘G-d will take care of me.’ A few hours later, as the waters engulfed the first floor of the man’s home, a boat passed by, and the captain offered to take the man to safety. The man declined, saying, ‘G-d will take care of me.’ A few hours after that, as the man waited on his roof – his entire home flooded – a helicopter flew by, and the pilot offered transportation to dry land. Again the man declined, telling the pilot that G-d would take care of him. Soon thereafter, the waters overcame the man, and as he stood before G-d in heaven, he protested his fate: ‘You promised that you’d help so long as I was faithful. ‘ G-d replied, ‘I sent you a car, a boat and a helicopter. Your death is your own fault.’” “God helps those that save themselves. This was the wisdom of MawMaw.”
-“So, to Papaw and Mamaw, not all rich people were bad, but all bad people were rich.”