Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy

by J.D. Vance

Overview: 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.

Debbie Weiss (07/23/17): "The Rust Belt voters" was a common phrase heard during the 2016 presidential election. It was this group that propelled Donald Trump to his unexpected victory. But who, exactly, comprise this voting block? Why did they overwhelmingly support the Republican nominee? J.D. Vance tries to answer both these questions.

J.D. Vance, the author of the book, grew up poor in Kentucky and Ohio, part of a large, extended hillbilly family. He was able to eventually obtain the American Dream, by being the first in his family to attend college and then to graduate from Yale Law School. Despite his impressive accomplishments, his entire childhood was spent in the Rust Belt and he completely understands and still relates to the people who populate this part of our country.

Vance tries to describe the culture that he was brought up in. It was definitely complicated. In his family, there was alcoholism and domestic abuse and a mother that seemed to have a new husband or boyfriend every other month. The one constant in his life was his grandparents. Other families he interacted with had similar situations. While the book mostly addresses the author's life and his relationships, he attempts to explain how these struggling families feel forgotten and neglected by the government. This book definitely provides interesting ideas about the cultural division in our country today --- the haves and the have nots. There are no easy answers.
Rating: ****

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