What We’re Reading: Hillbilly Elegy

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

Author: J.D. Vance

cover of book Hillbilly Elegy

Genre: memoir

Why did you choose to read this book?

I am a member of a two-person book club and the other member suggested this book.

What did you like about it?

It was a quick read. J.D. Vance details his upbringing in the Rust Belt as the descendant of Appalachian migrants to Ohio. He details the culture and communities of Scots-Irish people in West Virginia and Middletown, Ohio.

Vance grew up in a close-knit family beset by violence, poverty and both alcohol and opioid addiction. Vance’s mother neglected him and his sister in their childhood, requiring the children to seek refuge with their grandparents and to take a lot of adult responsibilities upon themselves.  Although the culture he describes undermines the value of education, Vance overcame great odds—through family members who never gave up on him plus an extreme amount of luck—to graduate Yale Law School. Vance is aware of his good fortune, but also attributes his success to basic life skills (managing money and personal care, for example), which he learned in the Marines; goal-setting, discipline and determination; and being very intelligent.

Did it remind you of any other book, or a movie?

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.

Was there anything noteworthy about the book?

It was a New York Times Bestseller.

With what feeling did the book leave you?

I have mixed feelings about this book. The story Vance tells of a rough childhood through graduating law school is compelling and illustrates the challenges that he and other poor, white, Appalachian migrants to the Midwest face in the world. When he delves into how mistreating young people harms them and their descendants, Vance is spot-on and saying something everyone needs to read.

I also think it is worth reading the book to understand the importance of having a dream and pursuing it. This, however, requires a narrow view: blocking out anything that does not lead directly to the goal. From his time in the Marines through law school, the reader can see this laser focus in Vance. However,there is a downside. When the author sidesteps the memoir aspects and delves into politics, I think he demonstrates the limits of living one’s life with a narrow viewpoint. Vance’s blind spots include race, self-awareness and compassion.

When Vance indulges his political views, the limits of extrapolating from his own life to a macro view become evident. Here’s one example. So-called payday loan companies succeed because of people who borrow more money than they can payback, at predatory interest rates. Vance was working part-time in college for a state assemblyman who voted in the minority against a bill that would eliminate this kind of predatory lending. Vance told a story of having forgotten to pickup his paycheck on a Friday, when the rent was due. He took out a payday loan to pay the rent, collected his check on Monday and paid back the loan plus “a few dollars.” This one time he borrowed from a lender, he did not behave like the typical borrower upon whom predatory lenders depend: he paid the money back right away. Yet, he claims that politicians don’t understand the needs of “people like me.” There are very few people like Vance.

To whom would you recommend this book?

If you think the United States is a classless society, read this and then come talk to me. If you are struggling to get ahead in the world and feel like you face insurmountable odds, this book may give you hope and some concrete examples of what might help you succeed.

With what would you pair this book?

While Hillbilly Elegy ignores the importance of race in one’s experience in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me fills the gap. When you read Hillbilly Elegy and get to the part where Vance is pulled over for speeding in West Virginia, ask yourself how that might have turned out different if he weren’t a white Marine. Vance occasionally mentions similarities between his situation and the situation Black people face, but Coates, through the lens of history, elucidates the unique circumstances of having dark skin in the United States.

About Stephen Brooks

Stephen is a reference librarian at Durham Tech. He has blogged previously at acqweb.org and for American Libraries magazine online. He enjoys reading 20th and 21st century literature, biographies and books about sports.