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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Hardcover – June 28, 2016
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"You will not read a more important book about America this year."—The Economist
"A riveting book."—The Wall Street Journal
"Essential reading."—David Brooks, New York Times
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
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“[A] compassionate, discerning sociological analysis…Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he’s done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans. Imagine that.” — Jennifer Senior, New York Times
“[Hillbilly Elegy] is a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America….[Vance] offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it…a riveting book.” — Wall Street Journal
“[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.” — David Brooks, New York Times
“[Hillbilly Elegy] couldn’t have been better timed...a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations...an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans.” — National Review
"[A]n American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… [T]he most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance." — Rod Dreher,The American Conservative
“J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy”, offers a starkly honest look at what that shattering of faith feels like for a family who lived through it. You will not read a more important book about America this year.” — The Economist
“[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir...a superb book...” — New York Post
“The troubles of the working poor are well known to policymakers, but Vance offers an insider’s view of the problem.” — Christianity Today
“Vance movingly recounts the travails of his family.” — Washington Post
“What explains the appeal of Donald Trump? Many pundits have tried to answer this question and fallen short. But J.D. Vance nails it...stunning...intimate...” — Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“[A] new memoir that should be read far and wide.” — Institute of Family Studies
“[An] understated, engaging debut...An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, this memoir is akin to investigative journalism. … A quick and engaging read, this book is well suited to anyone interested in a study of modern America, as Vance’s assertions about Appalachia are far more reaching.” — Library Journal
“Vance compellingly describes the terrible toll that alcoholism, drug abuse, and an unrelenting code of honor took on his family, neither excusing the behavior nor condemning it…The portrait that emerges is a complex one…Unerringly forthright, remarkably insightful, and refreshingly focused, Hillbilly Elegy is the cry of a community in crisis.” — Booklist
To understand the rage and disaffection of America’s working-class whites, look to Greater Appalachia. In HILLBILLY ELEGY, J.D. Vance confronts us with the economic and spiritual travails of this forgotten corner of our country. Here we find women and men who dearly love their country, yet who feel powerless as their way of life is devastated. Never before have I read a memoir so powerful, and so necessary. — Reihan Salam, executive editor, National Review
“A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author’s journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It’s also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view and offers genuine hope in the form of hard-hitting honesty. Hillbilly Elegy announces the arrival of a gifted and utterly original new writer and should be required reading for everyone who cares about what’s really happening in America.” — Amy Chua, New York Times bestselling author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
“Elites tend to see our social crisis in terms of ‘stagnation’ or ‘inequality.’ J. D. Vance writes powerfully about the real people who are kept out of sight by academic abstractions.” — Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, investor, and author of Zero to One
From the Back Cover
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class through the author’s own story of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.
The Vance family story began with hope in postwar America. J.D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir, with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
- ASIN : 0062300547
- Publisher : Harper; Reprint edition (June 28, 2016)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780062300546
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062300546
- Item Weight : 1.1 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.93 x 9 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #26,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on February 20, 2021
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While ostensibly about the particular culture of the West Virginia Scots-Irish underclass, anyone that has seen white poverty in America's flyover states will recognize much of what is written about here. It is a life on the very edge of plausibility, without the sense of extra-family community that serves as a stabilizing agent in many first-generation immigrant communities or communities of color. Drugs, crime, jail time, abusive interactions without any knowledge of other forms of interaction, children growing up in a wild mix of stoned mother care, foster care, and care by temporary "boyfriends," and in general, an image of life on the edge of survival where even the heroes are distinctly flawed for lack of knowledge and experience of any other way of living.
This is a story that many of the "upwardly mobile middle class" in the coastal areas, often so quick to judge the lifestyles and politics of "those people" in middle America, has no clue about. I speak from experience as someone that grew up in the heartland but has spent years in often elite circles on either coast.
Two things struck me most about this book.
First, the unflinching yet not judgmental portrayal of the circumstances and of the people involved. It is difficult to write on this subject without either glossing over the ugliness and making warm and fuzzy appeals to idealism and human nature, Hollywood style, or without on the other hand descending into attempts at political persuasion and calls to activism. This book manages to paint the picture, in deeply moving ways, without committing either sin, to my eye.
Second, the author's growing realization, fully present by the end of the work, that while individuals do not have total control over the shapes of their lives, their choices do in fact matter—that even if one can't direct one's life like a film, one does always have the at least the input into life that comes from being free to make choices, every day, and in every situation.
It is this latter point, combined with the general readability and writing skill in evidence here, that earns five stars from me. Despite appearances, I found this to be an inspiring book. I came away feeling empowered and edified, and almost wishing I'd become a Marine in my younger days as the author decided to do—something I've never thought or felt before.
I hate to fall into self-analysis and virtue-signaling behavior in a public review, but in this case I feel compelled to say that the author really did leave with me a renewed motivation to make more of my life every day, to respect and consider the choices that confront me much more carefully, and to seize moments of opportunity with aplomb when they present themselves. Given that a Hillbilly like the author can find his way and make good choices despite the obstacles he's encountered, many readers will find themselves stripped bare and exposed—undeniably ungrateful and just a bit self-absorbed for not making more of the hand we've been dealt every day.
I'm a big fan of edifying reads, and though given the subject matter one might imagine this book to be anything but, in fact this book left me significantly better than it found me in many ways. It also did much to renew my awareness of the differences that define us in this country, and of the many distinct kinds of suffering and heroism that exist.
Well worth your time.
Vance's Mamaw and Pawpaw came from a holler in Kentucky called Jackson. He got her pregnant at the age of thirteen and the two took the famous Route 23 out of Kentucky to Ohio (sometimes referred to as "Middletucky") where a good job at a steel manufacturer, Amaco, awaited. They weren't the only ones. Plenty of people from Appalachia left for jobs in Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania (or "Pennsyltucky"), and Illinois. In the 1950s thirteen out of one hundred in Kentucky took the hillbilly highway out and in Harlan County Kentucky, thirty percent of its population, mostly coal miners, left.
Life was hard for his Mamaw and Pawpaw. She had several miscarriages and three children that survived. These included Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Wee, and his mother. His Pawpaw was an alcoholic and things could get ugly in their house. He would straighten himself out and while he and his wife stayed married they would end up with their own separate homes once their kids were grown, but remained close. But heaven help anyone who bothered one of the children or a member of the family. When Uncle Jimmy was five, he saw a toy in the pharmacy that he wanted for Christmas and his parents told him to go in and look at it while they finished shopping at a store. When he picked it up to play with it, the clerk in the store told him that he wasn't allowed to touch the toy and kicked the boy out of the pharmacy. When his parents found him and found out what happened they went in and trashed the place and stood up for their son's honor, because how dare someone tell their son that he can't come in their store.
He would take a while to adjust to a new place as his mother moved him and his older sister, Lydnsey, around to different homes with different men. The one constant was his Mamaw's place. Life with his mother was hard as she had a temper and in her relationships, fighting was the only way she knew how to deal with things. So dishes went flying and she would get violent with the men in her life.
According to J.D., this was how most hillbillies acted. Also, they spent money they didn't have at Christmas on fancy gifts for the kids, hoping the IRS refund check would cover it. Sometimes there would be someone in the house with a substance abuse problem. In J.D.'s case, it was his mother who got hooked on pills. They also abuse the Welfare system and try to get out of work if they can.
Vance basically says that you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but most of these people don't have boots. And he had helped himself. His Mamaw received a pension check from his Papaw when he died and likely social security. He credits his Mamaw, his sister, his teachers, and the Marines with helping him to avoid going down the wrong path and instead earning his degree at Ohio State and his law degree at Yale, something practically unheard of from where he was from. He offers a lot of criticism but no solutions and he overgeneralizes and forgets the people in his life that weren't loud and violent like his sister and Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Wee and cousin Gail and their spouses. It's like he wants them to be the exception that proves the rule, but there are more of them in his life than the violent argumentative types. Also, I think there are plenty of people who are dying to get jobs of any kind if you just give them a chance. And there are programs that train people in Appalachia to learn a new trade for a company that is in the area. Vance is close to using stereotypes, though with stereotypes there is some truth to them. Read this book with caution.
*Vance is contemplating a run for office and it is my opinion that he wrote this book as a stepping stone for this purpose. But that is just my opinion.
* I add this as I think it might be interesting and be a counterpoint to the book.
I was born in poverty in Appalachia. ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ doesn’t speak for me.
J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” in Washington in January. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
By Betsy Rader September 1, 2017
Betsy Rader is an employment lawyer at Betsy Rader Law LLC, located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. She is running as a Democrat to represent Ohio’s 14th Congressional District in the U.S. House.
J.D. Vance’s book “Hillbilly Elegy,” published last year, has been assigned to students and book clubs across the country. Pundits continue to cite it as though the author speaks for all of us who grew up in poverty. But Vance doesn’t speak for me, nor do I believe that he speaks for the vast majority of the working poor.
From a quick glance at my résumé, you might think me an older, female version of Vance. I was born in Appalachia in the 1960s and grew up in the small city of Newark, Ohio. When I was 9, my parents divorced. My mom became a single mother of four, with only a high school education and little work experience. Life was tough; the five of us lived on $6,000 a year.
Like Vance, I attended Ohio State University on scholarship, working nights and weekends. I graduated at the top of my class and, again like Vance, attended Yale Law School on a financial-need scholarship. Today, I represent people who’ve been fired illegally from their jobs. And now that I’m running for Congress in Northeast Ohio, I speak often with folks who are trying hard but not making much money.
Although high school graduation rates are rising and there are more private and federal grants available, most low-income students have a tough time attending and staying in college. Here are nine facts about poor students and the college experience. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/Photo: iStock/The Washington Post)
A self-described conservative, Vance largely concludes that his family and peers are trapped in poverty due to their own poor choices and negative attitudes. But I take great exception when he makes statements such as: “We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. We purchase homes we don’t need, refinance them for more spending money, and declare bankruptcy. . . . Thrift is inimical to our being.”
Who is this “we” of whom he speaks? Vance’s statements don’t describe the family in which I grew up, and thy don’t describe the families I meet who are struggling to make it in America today. I know that my family lived on $6,000 per year because as children, we sat down with pen and paper to help find a way for us to live on that amount. My mom couldn’t even qualify for a credit card, much less live on credit. She bought our clothes at discount stores.
Thrift was not inimical to our being; it was the very essence of our being.
With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.
Here is the simple fact: Most poor people work. Seventy-eight percent of families on Medicaid include a household member who is working. People work hard in necessary and important jobs that often don’t pay them enough to live on. For instance, child-care workers earn an average of $22,930 per year, and home health aides average $23,600. (Indeed, it is a sad irony that crucial jobs around caretaking and children have always paid very little.)
The problem with living in constant economic insecurity is not a lack of thrift, it is that people in these circumstances are always focused on the current crisis. They can’t plan for the future because they have so much to deal with in the present. And the future seems so bleak that it feels futile to sacrifice for it. What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.
Yes, I worked hard, but I didn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps. And neither did Vance. The truth is that people helped us out: My public school’s guidance counselor encouraged me to go to college. The government helped us out: I received scholarships and subsidized federal loans to help pay my educational expenses. The list of helpers goes on.
Now that so many people have read “Hillbilly Elegy” this summer, I hope they draw this better moral from the story: Individuals can make a difference in others’ lives, and by providing opportunities for all, our government can do the same. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should be legitimate expectations for everyone, “hillbillies” included.
Top reviews from other countries
The book wasn't quite what I expected and I was delighted. I expected a more formal study but I got a very personal account of being raised in white, working class America and making it good.
As the start of the book I was full of questions and many of them were answered as JD's story progressed.
Most of the book is very personal but I found the most fascinating parts when he discusses the view, within America, of the white working class and the disadvantages that they deal with. There is a lot of pondering in the narrative that could be reduced at times but, to my delight, little use of academic theories.
This book will be very interesting for many people to read.
His realisation that the norms of life passed him by when he attends a posh dinner and hasn't a clue about table manners or etiquette is almost funny if it weren't so poignant. Cutlery and the fancy food and his first encounter with sparkling water is nearly his downfall but he gets through it.
The four years he spends in the marines makes a man of him and taught him life coping skills like managing finances and living independently in college.
All in all I enjoyed the book although my book club friends thought it was a bit unbelievable that he was so ignorant of the world outside his neck of the woods. I wasn't as I have seen people living in other cultures who would find our Western cultural norms alien.
I sense JD Vance's politics would be very conservative Republican and despite that I found his honesty and desire to get on while not rejecting his past very laudable.
The social background is fascinating – people on the fringes of mainstream society, almost literally, hidden away in the hollers of the Appalachians – with their own codes of honour, interacting enough with The Man to get money, but feeling excluded and not expecting to achieve beyond some personal status at a local level, and kind of institutionalised low self-esteem. Bad things that happen are always someone else’s fault: and Vance gives examples of this delusional self-righteousness, such as the guy who worked with him in the tyre depot who is outraged at getting sacked, even though he hadn’t bothered to turn up for work half the time. There are parallels with the UK in terms of the working-class areas which have lost their purpose as the industries which gave them meaning – coal, steel, shipbuilding, textiles – have disappeared and not been replaced, and the close community ties which bind people make it hard to leave, or to even to believe there’s a way out – for example, via education. In the US, the problem is exacerbated by distance and sheer physical isolation. Other countries will have their own variants of communities built around things which are no longer there and which suffer from that aimlessness.
To say, as some do, that this explains Trump or Brexit is perhaps over-egging the pudding: but it offers a picture of people abandoned by the march of progress, who then withdraw into themselves in a disconnect from the mainstream. And not only is it hard for individuals to motivate themselves break out of that mould, but it also offers a fruitful field for populists to draw on, to blame Other People (foreigners, the metropolitan elite) for that disadvantage and to ride that “righteous” anger to some political end (like Brexit or Trump 2016).
Overall, a terrific read, with some great insights, from someone who has actually lived it and got out (but still can’t quite believe it).