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

by J. D. Vance

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This is a memoir from the point of view of a “hillbilly” growing up in the Rust Belt of America. He is an anomaly of sorts in that he was able to escape the circumstances of his past and become such a success story. His mother was an addict and abusive. He, as a child, was a victim of her abuse. She had a rotation of husbands and boyfriends continuously entering and leaving their lives. Despite this, he was able to move on. After high school, he joined the marines and served in Iraq. Then, he went on to Ohio State and Yale Law School. His story drew me in right away. He tells his story through this lens: “…for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

He tells his own life story alongside statistics and study data of the area, its people and culture at large. I found this a fascinating read from a voice in a corner of the world we do not often hear from. It provides certain insights and offers plenty of discussion points. It is incredible that he had the resilience of character combined with the alignment of certain factors that gave him the will and drive to succeed as he did. He comes across with great humility attributing his success to these factors that did align in the right way for him. He could have just as easily, perhaps more easily fallen into a life of addiction and poverty.

Mamaw is a crucial supporter for J.D. Vance and a relentless voice encouraging him to be more, to think bigger for himself. Mamaw and Papaw had moved to Ohio for factory jobs from southeastern Kentucky alongside so many others. There is a reference to Dwight Yokam’s song “Reading, Rightin’, Rt. 23” and how relatable this was to Mamaw as well as much of Appalachia at that time. When J.D.’s mother and aunt were growing up, Papaw was an alcoholic and the relationship between the parents was stormy, even violent at times. Mamaw eventually kicked Papaw out and becomes a guiding force and bright light for J.D. as well as for many other of her grandchildren and great grandchildren, even though this stability was not provided for her own children. Papaw serves as her sidekick, still living in his separate house, sober now.

There is a fair amount of discussion within the book about how Appalachia and the South went from firmly Democratic to firmly Republican in less than a generation. According to this book, there was a perceived unfairness to unemployment checks, whereby those not working would seem to actually have more luxuries, like cell phones, than those who were working hard. Also, in the realm of housing, people could live in Section 8 housing with help from the government and be neighbors to others who are paying their full share. Obama was apparantly unpalatable to the hillbilly people because he was so educated and spoke so differently from them. They did not feel they could relate to him. Oh, and maybe there was some racism involved too (but this point was strangely mentioned almost as an afterthought.) This is a class of people, strongly united in their identity, but left feeling hopeless and disenfranchised with the loss of industry where they were previously employed.

This culture of blue collar worker with their tight knit community has higher than average levels of drug and alcohol dependence, divorce, and poverty. The children of this community are less likely to go on to college. The men are more likely not to work. Those that do go off to college are unlikely to come back to their home towns. Thus, there occurs a phenomenon referred to as “brain drain.” This cycle is self perpetuating and reinforcing. It is “a culture of social decay” as J.D. Vance puts it. There is also a “learned helplessness, ” in other words, a feeling that there is nothing these people can do to change their own circumstances.

Politically, this book is very interesting. J.D. Vance blames the hillbilly culture for their own situation. He believes in hard work and personal responsibility despite hardships. His views are very conservative.

J.D. Vance is a venture capitalist in Ohio hoping to give back to the community he came from. I will be very interested in seeing how he does give back, especially after painting such a bleak outlook for the potentiality of a solution to the problems faced by these people. He does say that the one thing he’d most like to change about the white working class is “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.” With his law background, it will be interesting to see if he decides to jump into politics at some point. He certainly seems interested in public policy, although skeptical of the magic bandaid. This is an interesting, thought provoking book providing insight into a region, a class of people, as well as a pivotal period in history.

For discussion questions. please see: http://www.book-chatter.com/?p=1520. ( )
  marieatbookchatter | May 24, 2017 |
Two people in two weeks urged me to read this, ostensibly to help me understand how an entire demographic could vote against its own interests, and maybe how the horror of 2016 could have come about. It accomplished neither. There's a story here that is hard and not hard to relate to. On the one hand, as I am not from Appalachia (or where the transplants landed) I will never understand that which is Appalachia, that which Vance describes.

This may well be true, but on the other hand, I grew up in a similar small town in Connecticut... It really wasn't until I left that I realized how close to the poverty line we lived; hand-me-downs, hand-made clothes, Spam as a main dish... And I married someone whose family came from Kentucky (and where grew up quite close to Vance's Middletown, Ohio). I recall visiting relatives in Ocala in the late 1960s who still had an outhouse. And I know well the "Mamaw" and "Papaw" grandparents of Vance, though my wife's did not use the colorful language of Vance's Mamaw.

Where it is hard to relate is that I have never understood the provincial mindset, the allegiance to "roots". I have never understood regional loyalties, the "Southern way", hollers or kin. Once I left Connecticut, I had no intention of going back. The limits were suffocating, though I only felt them after I left, when I realized there was a much bigger world than our 1968 Encyclopedia Britannica (I have no idea how much debt my parents incurred to give us that incredible resource) shared with me.

So, this book paints a picture. A specific autobiographical picture, which should not be construed as indicative of all "hillbillies", but with commonalities too many can identify with. It did not explain to me why the people described would vote for people who are clearly intuitively obvious to the most casual observer not representing them. The distinct lack of critical thinking does not mean lack of intelligence. But Vance himself notes how people refuse to believe the truth, or worse, believe untruths despite being shown the truth, and I can't abide willful ignorance.

Maybe this was too close for comfort. Too real. Memories of a distanced family. Memories of a small town life consciously, and with deliberate intent, left behind long ago. But I have always held that it is a moral imperative to improve oneself - if not one's lot in life, then at least intellectually - in spite of one's environment. Vance made something of himself. This is good. But he admits to heroes that tells me he stopped short. ( )
1 vote Razinha | May 23, 2017 |
"I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith."

Vance's depictions of the characters that make up his extended family are rich and the stories of his childhood in industrial Ohio and rural Appalachia tragic but riveting. Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir, and while it reflects at some length on the realities of life for working class whites, social policies, and the consequences of upward mobility, it's primarily a story of family and roots. This is a saga, full of violence and crippling vices and loss. But most compelling about this story, at least to me, is the unbridled resilience and seemingly limitless hope of the Vance family. His anecdotes about finding his footing in a new world, such as calling his girlfriend for advice on cutlery etiquette while at a formal Yale networking dinner, are charming and tangible. And while he lost me a bit in his discourse on the intricacies of navigating law school and its exclusive culture, the journey itself is raw and powerful. Hillbilly Elegy is an affecting reflection on social class, the American Dream, and working class culture. ( )
  GennaC | May 9, 2017 |
An inspiring story of how a boy raised in the violence and fierce clannishness of his Kentucky family went to Yale and became a lawyer and writer. The story illuminates a subculture within the U.S. and the historical migration of the rural Appalachian poor to the industrial cities of the midwest with the culture clashes that ensued. ( )
  NMBookClub | May 3, 2017 |
(22) I read this very quickly. I usually hate memoirs but after this book came up while visiting some college friends in NYC - for sure 'the liberal elite,' I rushed to read it. This young man crystallizes a lot of what being poor is all about - it isn't 'the system' or the 'the government's' fault. It is not just economic poverty but emotional poverty. It is the social decay that has crept into the working and the non-working poor. That can't be a popular position for him to have taken. However, I think he pulls it off fairly well.

I appreciate the candor with which he talked about even the most beloved members of his family, his Mamaw and Papaw. I appreciated that he did not forgive alcoholism and drug-abuse, child neglect and abuse, and violent tempers (although he sometimes veered into being an apologist for this.) I wish he would have explored the cultural implications of the white-working class' issues with racism, and xenophobia, and religious zealotry. Although calling himself a hillbilly, a Christian, a conservative is fine - I feel there was a lingering dichotomy the way he represented that identity and how he turns out. He does conveniently leave out his own personal beliefs on issues that have come to define the cultural divide, right? guns, gays, God and of course . . . reproductive rights. Oh well, that is not really what the book was about. But it begs the question. . .

I think this was a brave book. Engaging, fascinating, resonating. Raises complex issues and painful truths. I haven't read any reviews at all - but I bet they are polarized. ( )
  jhowell | Apr 29, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
J. D. Vanceprimary authorall editionscalculated
Carlson-Stanisic, LeahDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, JarrodCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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For Mamaw and Papaw, my very own hillbilly terminators
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My name is J. D. Vance, and I think I should start with a confession: I find the existence of the book you hold in your hands somewhat absurd.
Like most small children, I learned my home address so that if I got lost, I could tell a grown-up where to take me.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062300547, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Sun, 03 Jul 2016 02:21:10 -0400)

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