Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy, written by former marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance, tells the story of the poor, white, working-class communities living in the Rust Belt – a group frequently overlooked in discussions of poverty and disadvantage in America. These communities of what Vance loving calls “hillbillies,” are dispersed throughout the former Industrial Midwest, populating regions that suffer from extreme economic decline due to deindustrialization, population loss, and urban decay. Vance, having grown up in the mountains of Jackson, Kentucky and in steel-town Middletown, Ohio, was born and raised a hillbilly. In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance writes the personal tale of his childhood in working-class middle America, while attempting to explain the culture of the hillbilly community and the reasons for their continuing decline.
Subtitled “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” this book provides interesting and often disheartening insight into this neglected population – filled with poignant stories of hard work, resilience, and family love and loyalty. Vance’s primary subject of discussion are the working-class whites who hail from Greater Appalachia, the area in the Appalachian Mountains spanning from Ohio and parts of New York in the North to Alabama and Georgia in the South. Through generations of social isolation in these mountain communities, a distinctive culture of aggression, family loyalty, and self-reliance developed. For these working-class whites, poverty is, and always has been, the norm. After World War II, millions living in the poorer regions of Appalachia chose to move west, to places like Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, towards flourishing industry and abundant factory work.. As a result, entire communities of Appalachians were relocated throughout the Industrial Midwest as they secured good jobs, with their distinctive culture held largely intact. However, in later years, industry declined, and the factories that were providing honest work and stable income for entire communities closed their doors. After everyone with the wealth, education, or connections to escape left the deteriorating Rust Belt, all that remained behind were masses of poor people – lacking the resources to leave, trapped in towns devoid of employment opportunities or social support, and helpless to prevent the continuing decline of their communities.
Vance describes a culture plagued with alcohol and drug abuse; family instability and single parenthood are the norm, and children see no hope in upward mobility. Communities suffer from widespread unemployment and poverty, lacking the large-scale support systems, including religious institutions, that could help families and children through tough times. Often angry and isolated from American society, these groups of working-class whites blame the government for the lack of jobs and support, while at the same time abuse the welfare systems established through government policy instead of attempting to provide for themselves – choosing to hide behind resentment of a world biased against them instead of taking personal responsibility for the welfare of their families.
Vance brings stories from his own childhood, growing up under a single drug-abusing mother who constantly cycled through boyfriends, and from previous generations in his family, which struggled with divorce, alcohol abuse, and violence within the home, as personal examples of these themes in hillbilly culture.
At the same time, Vance brings descriptions of a loving family and many lessons learned that show that hillbilly culture is not all bad. Vance highlights the more admirable features – their fierce family loyalty, patriotism, hard work and personal responsibility – which he learned from his aunts and uncles. Additionally, Vance expresses his deep appreciation for his grandparents. Despite a history of divorce, violence, and alcoholism as parents, Vance’s grandparents shielded him from the worst of the hillbilly culture during his youth, taught him the value of hard work, and made him believe in his own intelligence and ability to succeed. Vance makes it clear that without their positive influence, he likely would have never been able to escape the poverty and cultural denigration that is the inescapable fate of most of his peers.
Interestingly, Vance maintains that government policy alone cannot solve the social and economic problems facing working-class whites. He explains that the problems plaguing these unfortunate communities stem from a place that government policy can’t reach – the home. These issues are caused by a culture of resentment and diffusion of responsibility, by childhoods filled with instability and trauma. Vance’s expresses the hillbillies’ unwillingness to honestly confront the problems inherent within their culture. Only once they do so, he argues, will they be able to make lasting changes within their communities.
Vance’s nuanced and intricate writing allowed the reader to appreciate both the good and the bad that he sees within his culture. Vance thoughtfully and respectfully balances his open love for his family and his admiration of their strengths with an authentic, critical, and sometimes heartbreaking discussion of their flaws. The bravery required to make such admissions about one’s own culture, and especially about people one loves, tells of an incredible inner strength and personal honesty. Additionally, Vance delivers an engaging and artful blend of personal memoir and social analysis. In explaining the culture and history of the community in which he grew up, Vance shifts between stories of his own childhood and family history, references to various sociological studies and historical works, and his own social analyses. By integrating the three, Vance weaves a tale of a “culture in crisis” that proves interesting, understandable, and personal. Vance’s stories of resilience and success fill the reader with inspiration, while his descriptions of the trauma and tragedy afflicting millions provide a sense of heavy grief.
Altogether, Hillbilly Elegy is an important and thought-provoking work that can give one a greater understanding of the lives and culture of this oft-neglected group of people, while also providing a plethora of timely and relevant lessons to be learned from his tales.