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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis Hardcover – June 28, 2016
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“[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))
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.
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That's not true. I thought I hated this book until I started writing the review.
Then I had to admit there are observations Mr. Vance makes that are alien to a portion of the population and that I had different expectations when I began the read. I upgraded my review from a two to a three. I still feel this book could have been better.
The author has every right to be proud he made it out of poverty to become a successful Yale-educated attorney, but I did not find his story compelling. From the book descriptors and some of the reviews, I expected a read like "Angela's Ashes," but Mr. Vance's Appalachia is not Mr. McCourt's Ireland. I wanted depth, detailed anecdotes, and rich characters. I got an essay.
There's no heart in this book. It is a "tell, don't show" issue, with statistics added where an anecdote should be. Mr. Vance seems to claim backwoods, trailer-trash redneck/hillbillies all for Appalachia's own yet I read this book thinking, "So? How is this different from life in Louisiana, Mississippi, or (I am guessing) urban Chicago?" My cousin's father-in-law lives in the backwoods of Louisiana has no indoor plumbing, and the goats and chickens have free reign over his house, inside and out. My uncle stood on the front porch of his home with a shotgun at curfew when his daughter came home from a date and would have shot her suitor happily if she did not arrive in the exact condition as when she left. Physical violence, drug addicted parents, single moms with revolving bedroom doors are ubiquitous in the South and urban areas. Grandparents who step in and take up the slack are also the norm.
However, this is supposed to be a political commentary, according to the talking heads and esteemed reviewers. Mr. Vance's political views are pretty much all over the map and more an observation than a passion. If you find this book enlightening, I hope it is because you discovered that neither party alone has a solution. According to the author, Reagan conservatism coupled with a touch of social liberalism is a good balance. A strong work ethic and a safety-net for the working poor, the disabled and the children is the ideal. Who can't agree with that?
I do believe he was brave in pointing out there is a significant portion of the poor who have no desire to be more than they are. Ambition is foreign, and laziness is in their DNA. To admit this from personal observation today is often met with backlash from the liberal elite. I imagine it is hard for people who have never seen poverty outside of urban areas to believe there are large portions of individuals states not labeled as "ghettos" or "hoods" where white people let their babies run around naked, collect disability because their knees won't hold their weight, and cook meth in campers set up in the woods. It's why the phrase "white privilege" is such a joke. Every culture, every race has problems.
Mr. Vance points out those who chose to leave the holler succeeded, but carried with them the innate "trashiness" that poisoned his home. He admits there is no way to legislate ignorance, but almost skims over the few instances he experienced "normal life," when families gathered without rancor, children without fear, and the odd "black sheep" was spoken of with forgiveness and mercy. Those times were spent with his father and when he visited other families who raised his family with faith in God. The author even points to statistics that show families living Christian lifestyles are more successful, suffer little family violence and fewer instances of drug use. However, while the author extols the need for payday loans from Democrats and the work ethic demanded by Republicans, he falls short of suggesting a revival of Godly behavior. He says his experience with church was positive and had great influence, but was/is he a believer? He doesn't go into what he felt in his heart - another example showing the lack of depth mentioned above. Not knowing his motivation for including a snippet of religion in his observations, I believe had Mr. Vance expounded even a little more on this facet of social relief, it would not be hailed as "an American classic" by critics today. Straddling a politically correct fence gets wobbly when you admit belief in God can change lives.
On the whole, I couldn't wait to finish this book and get it behind me. Perhaps memoirs just aren't for me, but I found the writer's style too confined. Where he could have painted a portrait, he gave us a line drawing. I expected more.
Mr. Vance likes to cite sociological and demographic statistics to back up his personal narrative. But, why? Isn't one's subjective experience enough? This work will never be considered anything more than anecdotal, so why try? This is not the sort of personal narrative one finds in something like Knausgaard's "My Struggle," which, fiction or not, makes you feel like you've known the man all your life and could sit down and have a beer with him without feeling the least bit awkward. On the contrary, Vance's yarn is presented in something like the third person, a stance I don't understand. As a result, the prose is dry and choppy. I found myself slogging through just to get through. As an effort at self-awareness in the Socratic tradition (Know thyself), I'd give this work a D. One never feels like the author is revealing himself, at least not with the brutal honesty of Knausgaard. Instead, it reads like a Hallmark card of correct sentimentality. This is not an age of political correctness: it's an age of sentimental correctness; and, Vance assures us with Hallmark card certainty that his sentiments are correct. He adores his sister and Mamaw and Papaw. He's a devout family man with the best of intentions. He goes to church and believes in Jesus. He's a conservative who doubts the ability of government to make effective change. Fine and dandy. But I wouldn't want to sit next to this guy on an airplane. I think the conversation would always get steered to himself. He finished Ohio State in two years, with honors. And then went to Yale and became editor of the "prestigious" Yale Law Review. And to ice the cake, he served as a Marine in Iraq. I mean, this dude's a physical and mental mensch. Man is the measure of all things, said Protagoras. And Vance is the measure of all men.
I think Mr. Vance might be posturing himself for a shot at political office.
Anyway, read it if you like. But this ain't no Steinbeck.
Top international reviews
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.
Both the reviews I have read and praise found on the cover of the book itself tell potential readers that this book is key to unlocking the mystery of Trump's election and the Brexit result, but the text offered no clues of the sort. Certainly, it is an interesting insight into what it's like growing up in white, working-class poverty. It goes a fair way to explaining the 'what' of the situation, but not the 'why' or 'how.'
The overarching message is that people who lack familial stability, or role models who are 'like them' but 'better' (for example Barack Obama is quintessentially not one of these people) will continue the cycle of poverty, and there are few things that government and policy can do to change it. Change must come from within, but how?
Few answers can be found in the book, unfortunately.
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.
What first caught my attention was the pride of belonging to a group of white people who stood for something that they were prepared to fight for, had absolute sense of right and wrong, even if they often succumbed to personal weaknesses. The comment that caught my attention was the pride of the poor working-class whites, that identified more with the poor working-class blacks than they did with poor whites who accepted state handouts. That often, poor folk judge harshly those that they perceive as having sold out. That they believe in family, in children and in the right to be left alone. Here, Vance shows how his Mamaw (grandmother) stood up for these values, even to the point of violence and threatening to kill with a gun. This community has many Mamaws, who will cling to their guns and to their religion. For them, they would rather defend their way of life than sell out to liberal values.
Vance gives us a glimpse of why the south flipped from Democrat to Republican, during Nixon’s presidency. He sees it not as the ‘racist south’, but a south that had a strong work ethic. They valued work and were proud of the freedom to pay their own way. They saw Democrats as “payin’ people who are on welfare today doin’ nothin’! They’re laughin’ at our society! And we’re all hardworkin’ people and we’re gettin’ laughed at for workin’ every day!”
This is what President Trump tapped into during the 2016 presidential campaign. He thought like the Hillbillies, spoke like them too and energised his base to overturn the candidate everyone was convinced would win. The ‘progressive’ liberals have embraced grievance politics, pushed affirmative action and ignored the plight of the white poor. They view the world through the prism of their guilty, white privilege, none of which makes sense to the Hillbilly. They do not experience white privilege, only white deprivation. This is why they turned to the Republicans or stopped voting altogether, prior to Trump, which is when the book was written.
Vance escaped the poverty by joining the marines and learning the value of true discipline. While many at home talked the talk, they often did not walk the walk. They lacked personal discipline, and their culture was dying through lack of jobs. The work ethic was fine while there were jobs, but these jobs had been exported to other countries, and yet their pride kept them from adapting.
Vance eventually went to Ohio State University and then to Yale Law school. He learned a great deal from his wife about not needing to respond to everything with fight or flight. He learned about the world of the rich and successful, where it is more important who you know than what you know. This very different world involved a different set of rules. In order to be successful, he had to learn how to belong in a different way. However, he did not forget his roots and did not sell out. He retained his compassion for his mother and came to understand her plight. He still believes in taking personal responsibility for the decisions we make, while acknowledging that childhood traumas can sometimes overwhelm our capacity to make the best choices.
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).
What this book isn't: an in-depth, academic treatise on the decline of America's white working class and the national and global economic and social forces and policies that have caused/hastened/exacerbated this situation with suggested solutions on how to turnaround their fortunes. There are some reviews criticising this book saying it doesn't deliver on these issues. I'm not sure it was ever meant to. I think that the hype has falsely raised expectations of this book's subject matter to a point well beyond its actual scope and the author's intent. The clue to what the main thrust of this book is actually about is in two words: 'family' and 'memoir'.
It increased my understanding of an America I knew little about - the Appalachian region and its people - and why Trump or Brexit won. It also is a very interesting piece of reflexion on politics, drugs, parenting, self-reflexion / introspection, migration, hopes and much more...
If we want to improve our society then we ought to understand as many of its components as possible and to not judge but encourage positive changes.