Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Update: This book is going to be made into a movie, directed by Ron Howard.

Before I start this book review, I feel the need to print a bit of a disclaimer. This book is about the area of the country in which I grew up. I grew up on the fringes of Appalachia, but I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who lived in Magoffin Country, KY, just two counties over from Jackson, KY, where the author spent at least part of his childhood. I don’t think I’m biased as I’ve spent most of my life in other places than Appalachia. But, I understand the culture and I am brutally honest about the culture. I have delayed writing this book review because the subject matter of the novel is so close to my heart as I’m sure it is close to the heart of J.D. Vance. With that said, here goes…..

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance is about a family who originated in Breathitt County, KY, squarely in the middle of the Appalachian portion of Kentucky (southeastern Kentucky). Specifically, Mr. Vance grew up in Jackson, KY, the largest town in that county. Breathitt County is poor, even desperately poor, white, and most of the people are, in their way, both hopeless and proud. This book is Mr. Vance’s memoir.

Hillbilly Elegy is a graphic, yet accurate, portrayal of life in Appalachia, or perhaps I should say Eastern Kentucky, during the time he grew up. I’m not speaking as a book reviewer. I’m speaking as one who was there at the same time as well as before and since. I know that the way Mr. Vance portrayed Eastern Kentucky is, for the most part, true. The people are good people. They are proud and they would be hard-working, if there were anywhere to work. Since work is so scarce, there have been periods of movement out of the area, and Mr. Vance’s family moved during one of those periods. The typical places to move have been to Ohio and Michigan. Mr. Vance’s family moved to Middletown, Ohio seeking a better life and work. Ultimately, they were seeking upward mobility. Upward mobility existed in Eastern Kentucky during my grandparent’s time. It doesn’t anymore.

Yes, Mr. Vance’s family carried their culture with them when they moved to Ohio. What else were they to do? They knew nothing else. They were hot-tempered and quick to take offense. Perhaps that was because the culture in Eastern Kentucky developed in geographic isolation from the rest of the world. The family had addiction problems. When people can’t find work, that tends to happen. Those things went with them to Ohio as they are not solvable over night. They were “different” than their neighbors in Ohio. Of course they were. They came from a different place with different social norms and different values. It was hard to fit in, especially with people who called you a “hillbilly” and made fun of your accent. Vance’s family all struggled with their middle-class life in Ohio. They struggled to escape the demons of their pasts. They never did and my guess is neither did J.D. Vance. None of us ever do, do we?

Vance’s family life seems chaotic to people who have never lived in the culture of Appalachia but not so chaotic to those of us who have. He did have the stabilizing influence of his grandparents on his mother’s side and that, perhaps, saved him. He went on to become a first-generation college student, a Marine, and he graduated from the Yale Law school. He is not the only young person to have escaped a disadvantaged background. He clearly had determination and intelligence as is evidenced in Hillbilly Elegy.

The culture described in this book is not limited to Appalachia. Any poor, white, disadvantaged culture can fall prey to the cultural problems that Vance’s family experienced. I admire J.D. Vance for writing a book that told the truth about a family and an area which he clearly loves.

Hillbilly Elegy is a bestseller. It is an excellent social psychology look at a culture in crisis. It should be required reading for high school and/or college students. #amwriting #amblogging #writing #HillbillyElegy #Appalachia

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