Realization of an American Social Crisis in "Hillbilly Elegy", by J.D. Vance - Book Review

These are the people we really don’t talk about. We may drive through their towns on a road trip, but it’s never our destination. We may even roll up the windows as we do, and lock the doors. They live in broken down factory or mining towns, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot to hope for.

J.D. Vance is one of them - a hillbilly. He grew up in Ohio, spent time in Kentucky, but always with his people. There are vast numbers of them that stretch across Appalachia and migrated into other states, following the jobs. Vance’s autobiography and account of the mindset and perspectives of the people living in these regions is not only eye opening, but jarring. I know there are millions of poor and undereducated in the U.S., and sometimes see it on the news or come face to face with it on the street - for a fleeting moment.

Vance was born into a family that had it a little better than some. Early in their marriage, his grandparents moved from their Kentucky roots to Ohio to find a better life. They had three children with varying degrees of success in their adult lives. Vance effectively takes us along with him through the rollercoaster of his life - multiple father figures, his mother’s mental illness and addiction, poverty, abysmal nutrition, and continuous moves. There is no way a child can become a normally functioning adult in that kind of environment, let alone thrive in it.

But Vance was very fortunate. And in the book, you’ll realize that his path to providence was anything but conventional. But ‘made it’ he did to become a Yale law school graduate thanks to his close relationship with his grandparents, his sister, and a few caring people along the way. His grandparents were rough, crude, and had little academic education, but they had the foresight to understand the next generation had to move beyond manual labor jobs, “working with their mind, not their hands.” They gave Vance a strong work ethic and a reason to strive for more than the majority in his community. They taught him to stay off the entitlement programs even when many others were wrongly taking advantage of it. And they provided faith, love, and stability which his parents could not.

As part of the overall landscape in the book, Vance touches on political views and how they’ve shifted over time. While his drug addicted neighbors lived off the dole, eating t-bone steaks, Vance worked at a grocery store and saw the taxes eat into his small wage, wondering if the “party of the working man” really was. And the folks living in Section 8 housing looked a lot like Vance and his grandmother. They are full on contradictions, as many of us are, in a community with deeper issues trying survive their lives of drugs, fights, and financial troubles. 

Vance does not simply provide anecdotal evaluations of conditions in the rust belt. He also sites academic studies about American working class struggles, education, and income, including the work of Raj Chetty, an economist who has been consulted by Democrat and Republican lawmakers alike. What we read in Hillbilly Elegy is an honest disclosure of a cycle of despair and hopelessness.

The prose is not remarkable, but the story is. With Vance as an exception, unfortunately, we need to come to grips with the fact there are millions of poor, uneducated people living in America with little hope or assistance to change. I don’t know all the answers, but we should start asking a lot more questions and working on solutions for the children of these communities so we can pave a brighter path for the next generation.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Harper Collins

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars