Review: Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy
Hillbilly Elegy
By J.D. Vance
Harper Paperbacks, 9780062300553, (Paperback) May 2018, 288pp.

The Short of It:

An important read, even if you think you won’t be able to relate to it.

The Rest of It:

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. – Indiebound

I had been avoiding this book when it was selected by my book club. Truthfully, I wasn’t interested in it because I knew it would hit too close to home, and it did. I didn’t grow up in the same region as Vance but I could identify with nearly everything Vance encountered growing up: addiction, abuse, poverty, and having what seemed like no other options for living.

But I could also identify with a need to belong, a need to succeed and the well-meaning intentions of some of the folks around me. Vance tells his story with brutal honestly but his story is peppered with hope throughout, which makes this memoir a very interesting read about the long-term effects of class decline on future generations and it begs the question, how can we fix it?

The full impact of this memoir didn’t hit me until the last third of the book. That is when Vance gets to the point. The never-ending cycle of poverty for some, make it impossible for them to rise above it. How could they without the realization that there is more out there?  If the norm is poverty and abuse, and it’s all they see, what motivation exists to change their situation for the better?

I know some people will argue with that logic. That people have a choice and they choose to be poor but for many, they grew up that way. They were never shown or given the opportunity to live differently. Vance suggests that the people who manage to pull themselves out of this cycle are the ones who were introduced to something different. I agree. It’s the number one reason why I work with teens and the homeless. I had people in my life that showed me a different way and that made all the difference. I want to be that person to someone else.

Hillbilly Elegy is a powerful read and if you don’t want to read it or think you can’t relate to it in some way, try, because it’s important to know how other people live. For our society to flourish we need role models to show us a better way because no matter where you stand politically, brokenness is evident all around us if you look.

Source: Borrowed
Disclosure: This post contains Indiebound affiliate links.

16 thoughts on “Review: Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”

  1. This book had a big impact on me too. I didn’t grow up that way but my sister-in-law did and it really helped me understand her and her family. Most of her family is still stuck in the cycle of poverty but she and one sister have escaped.

    1. To this day, I still think about how two people in the same situation can head in completely different directions. My sister and I had the same childhood experiences but one rose above it and one is still living it and cannot pull herself out no matter who steps in. Yes, mental illness played a role but I feel like I had more people intervening on my behalf. I was older. I was able to understand it better. When Vance talks about how he could not have done any of what he did without help, I get that. What keeps people in the cycle?

  2. I was not as impressed with this one as you were. I found his message a bit too simplistic and his path out of poverty was by no means usual. I say this because I did live in Middletown, Ohio for seven years and know the area fairly well. It is as bad as he mentions, but once he enters Ohio State I feel it loses its importance. OSU is one of the more difficult schools for admissions and it is very expensive, even for in-state students. Not to mention Harvard. So, he has a good message and I absolutely agree that breaking the poverty cycle hinges on someone on the outside helping you. However, anyone reading it thinking that going to OSU or Harvard is easy is going to be sorely disappointed. Plus, not everyone has someone on the outside to help them; therein lies one of the main problems.

    I also have issues with his generalizations being taken at face value and as the gospel for that particular demographic. I do believe he has a unique perspective but his experiences do not necessarily make him an expert on them.

    1. Interesting take. I didn’t at all get the idea that it was easy for someone like him to get into the schools that he did. I think he did an adequate job of indicating that it probably would not have ended the way it did, had it not been for key people giving him a leg up. I feel like he sees himself as the exception and that his experience is a rare one. But I also think that is his point. That there needs to be more opportunities for the people in this demographic to be seen in general. It’s too easy to write them off.

      I wouldn’t say I was impressed with the book because he is simply stating his experience but I am impressed by his motives for writing it. He seems to genuinely want to point out that there needs to be more of these “leg up” people willing to step out and help. Obviously I don’t know him personally but he comes across as very genuine. I see the book as his way of thanking those who helped him too.

  3. I’m glad you liked this book. I thought it was good, but know when I finished it I wanted more. Now it’s been a while and I can’t remember what “more” I wanted. I do think he did a great job of showing what life is like in those areas and how difficult it is to change.

    1. What he saved for the last third of the book, is what I would have liked to have seen expanded. That is when it got interesting for me. I know he spent a good chunk giving us readers the background so we’d know what he was talking about but a little more conclusion would make it pretty solid.

  4. This isn’t a book that I will make time to read but I was able to sort of get it just by reading your thoughts and the thoughts of those who also read it. I grew up in Ohio but in a small town near Youngstown. I don’t know where Middleton is although I probably should. Almost everyone that I know in that area went to college…either to Ohio State, Youngstown State, Kent or any number of small private universities. My small town produces an amazing number of teachers, lawyers, doctors and dentists…because it was a steel town…most of our fathers worked in the steel industry and insisted that their children go to college. It was expected of us. One family that I grew up with had six children…all of them are doctors, dentists, and nurses. I don’t really know why I am sharing this…I think it bears some relevance to this discussion…at least I hope it does.

    1. I think most people want something better for their kids. Working in steel those families probably knew hardship in some way whether they were classified as poor or not so it makes sense that they pushed their kids to get an education. Do you think that’s the case now for lower income families? Do you think kids are encouraged to get an education these days? I know for many lower income families as soon as the kids are old enough to work they usually do out of necessity. I wonder how that affects their learning.

  5. I’ve had the audio of this for a long time and hope to get to it soon. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio which is a 1 /12 hr. drive from Middletown. I didn’t know anyone who grew up like the author did so his book interests me.

    1. I’ve talked to some other bloggers who grew up very close to Middleton but at the time, did not know or was even aware of Middleton so it must be a small pocket community.

  6. I too thought this was a powerful memoir. I reviewed it last May. Sure he was helped a bit to get into those schools, but I was impressed by how much he did by myself … to pull himself out of the poverty/abuse cycle all around him and to really strive for a better education & way of Life — though not to turn his back on his relatives or grandparents. Holy shit, I thought it took a lot on his part. I also thought he seemed genuine and I liked how he read the book for the audio. We might not agree on politics or political affiliations or whatever but I dont think I need to agree on all his ideas to like the book.

    1. He does come across as very genuine and I like what you said about not having to agree on politics in order to like the book. I didn’t think it was all that remarkable until the last third. The very personal bits he included like his experiences at Christmas time, really drove it home for me. Just stuff like that.

    1. I’m kind of confused over why the Democratic party read this book as a way to “figure out” those who voted for Trump. Trump promised jobs. This demographic was primarily working class. Seems like it’s a no brainer as to how he got elected. I didn’t see this book as a big revelation in that respect.

  7. This sounds like an excellent read and I agree that you have to see something outside your current situation to want something different. To strive for that something. I think this would be another good book club pick

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