Hillbilly Elegy

This book, by J. D. Vance, is a memoir of the author’s life: his young years, since he is only in his thirties as he writes! His grandparents came from the coal mining area of northern Kentucky. They moved to an industrial town in Ohio to find jobs. But their “hillbilly” culture came with them, as it did with multitudes who followed a similar pattern.

This is an intimate look at this culture, and how it has shaped American life and politics. Although written before the 2016 presidential campaign, the people Vance writes about are basically the ones who elected Trump as president.

When taken together with the people and culture demonstrated in the movie I reviewed just previous to this review, Hell or High Water, it provides insight into how people could come to support someone like Donald Trump. There is a deep-abiding suspicion of those in power. There is a need to be able to feel at some level of control of ones life and destiny.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a great book on numerous levels. On a personal level, it is a story of survival and success against unbelievable odds. That someone could come out of an environment like JD did is incredible. That he became a successful lawyer and is living as successful a life as he is makes it even more special. It really is a credit to JD Vance that he has made of his life what he has, so far.

On another level, the stories of JD’s family members is also very intriguing. Often times, and by many peoples’ standards, there was a lot of dysfunction in the various members of his family. And yet they got by, at some level. And they were able to install in JD values which, as he grew up, enabled him to rise above his environment. Vance gives such an informed view of the “hillbilly” culture. He was raised in it. He was raised by members of this culture. His “mamaw”, as he called his grandmother, was his primary caretaker during his childhood. And she seemed to be the epitome of the hillbilly grandma! She certainly outdid the sanitized view of the grandma in the popular TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies!! And yet she instilled in her grandson values of education, hard work, never giving up, etc, which allowed him to succeed as he grew into adulthood. Vance’s portrayal of his family-of-origin is both enlightening and personal. Deeply personal, as it is the primary environment which shaped him into the adult he is today.

On yet a bigger level, J. D. Vance’s story provides a glimpse into the wider hillbilly culture. So many small cities and towns in the so-called “rust-belt” were built up by migrations of “hillbillies” to work in the factories. But the culture of the coal-mining communities from where they came survived the migrations. And Vance is able to see this now, from his vantage point of a well-educated, intelligent survivor of this culture. Even though he now lives in California, he provides articulate insight into this large subculture of the USA.

He helps me understand the previously incredulous election of Donald Trump. I am almost completely unable to understand how anyone could have voted for such a despicable excuse of a human being. I know that many of my own family members did just such an action. But I do not understand it. Vance has helped me put this political debacle into some sort of perspective. If not yet completely understandable, it does help!!

I am thankful to J. D. Vance for opening up his personal experience to help us to understand a little better how a large portion of American society thinks and acts. Hillbilly Elegy is a very well-written memoir. It is an engaging read, both for its writing style and for its content. I urge any readers of this humble blog to search out this book and read it. You will not regret it.