Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis, by J.D. Vance

Intriguingly enough, I first became familiar with this book through a large volume of leftist rants that sought to tear this book apart.  Finding the attempted hit job on the author and his memoir wanting, I decided to read the memoir itself and see how I appreciated what the author had to say.  I must admit that I found the author’s memoir rather compelling, as I thought I might, and found the author himself to be somewhat more moderate than his haters and critics would want readers to believe.  This book is a memoir where the author discusses his own upbringing as part of the Appalachian diaspora (of which I am also a part) and then discusses his somewhat Nathanish family background, which I could obviously relate to both in my own personal experience in parts as well as in my observation of those around me with similar backgrounds to the author and myself.  And not only that, but I can also identify with the author’s striving, his feeling of being caught in between worlds, and his own desires to use education in order to leave the shame of being a poor white man from a dysfunctional family and cultural background behind.

The book itself is relatively short at about 250 pages and it discusses the author’s family background starting from his grandparents and moves to the period where he and his wife leave Yale Law School to Cincinnati to become successful members of the upper middle class while the author still has to deal with his addict of a mother whose search for relief and lasting and loving relationships fails over and over again.  The book shows us as Vance struggles with questions of faith and identity and seeks to use his obvious intellect in order to exit the dead-end existence of the white working class in rural Ohio from Appalachian heritage, with grandparents who provide a necessary stability and some pushing about the importance of school and some time in the military as well as some good mentors who provide the author with the necessary information to make wise choices about extracurricular activities and clerkships and the like.  The author shows himself to be someone who feels behind but who is able to successfully manage the way that elites operate so that he finds his own place in contemporary society as someone who can speak authoritatively about what it takes to rise from disadvantageous circumstances through family support as well as one’s own tenacity and successful handling of responsibility.

In looking at this book, the author strikes a surprisingly moderate cord, neglecting neither larger societal questions about the hopelessness and lack of opportunity present in many small towns as well as the very characteristic and obvious ways that people fall into traps that they cannot get out of–addictions, bad relationship patterns, unwillingness to accept personal responsibility, a lack of focus on gaining education and skills.  Without beating the reader over the head, the author tells his own personal tale and draws from it useful and reasonable conclusions about the culture that he came from, with the honor-based violence that tends to land people in difficulty with the legal system, that demonstrates an awareness of how our own familial and cultural heritage can drag us down, and how even if we manage to succeed in living a decent and honorable life that something is taken from us by having had to resist that heritage and that background so fiercely.  Rather than see this book as the be-all and end-all of books about Appalachia or see myself needing to tear into the author because of his focus on personal responsibility as well as gratitude for the opportunities and privileges one receives–for the author indeed had some important privileges that helped him escape a deeply unpleasant fate–I saw myself as someone not too unlike the author and who can speak to the validity of his own experience and his own approach to his situation in life as an Appalachian exile.  And there are likely many readers of this book who can relate to having the same sort of struggle that the author does to both honor and transcend his background and origins.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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