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Feb 07

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

I can see why this book hit the bestseller list. It really hits the zeitgeist of this tumultuous past few years we’ve had, especially with regards to the questions of middle America and how to achieve the “American Dream.” It also tells the plucky story of a hometown boy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and achieved what would conventionally be defined as success. Everyone loves that story.

It doesn’t hurt that Vance is a competent writer with a good enough memory to tell his family history in a way that makes the principal characters in his life seem vivid to the reader (or in my case, listener). He has an honest and unflinching (yet loving) way of describing his family members that makes them seem like characters in the best of novels. The most fascinating were his maternal grandparents, Mawmaw and Pawpaw, who left Kentucky when Mawmaw got pregnant as a teenager, and had a hard young adulthood suffering being away from home, the grief of multiple miscarriages and the abuse and alcoholism of her not-much-older husband. As Vance knows them, they are the anchor of love and stability in his own chaotic life, but he doesn’t flinch in describing their own rocky past.

He also doesn’t flinch in describing his own relationship with his mother and the pain that her choices caused him. Because he lived so often in the home of whichever man his mother was dating at the time, Vance and his sister Lindsay establish a pattern of never feeling comfortable being taken care of, as if it’s the worst crime to count on an adult for support. This fascinates me because it’s so different from my own childhood, which was pretty great. It’s a first hand account of the emotional baggage developed from something which seems fairly benign on the surface: a single mother who engages in a series of relationships.

Vance also talks about class in a way that will irritate those myopic individuals who persist in espousing the bullshit theory that America is a classless society. He’s able to achieve fairly substantial success not just through hard work, but by leaving his Hillbilly, Cracker Barrel eating past behind him. He gets ahead through academic achievement, yes, but also through the help of people who teach him the unspoken rules of the upper class. He doesn’t dwell on the cost of no longer fitting into the society that raised him, but he mentions that the town he grew up in no longer feels like home.

This is a fascinating book on a subject that hasn’t been well explored, at least not by books on the bestseller list. I’d like to read more books on the subject, and I’m curious to see what Vance does with his surprising stardom.

View all my reviews

2 comments

  1. David Wesley

    For a great read on the history of class in America, try “White Trash; The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg. It puts to bed the idea that America was formed as a classless society.

  2. Kater

    I’m partway through that book right now. I’m finding it unrelentingly depressing, so it is taking a while to finish it. The problem is that the history, while 300+ years in the past, is still so very present.

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