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

by J. D. Vance

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4,4282561,843 (3.79)349
Vance, a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, provides an 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. 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. 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.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 254 (next | show all)
Hard to "like" this book but it is not the author's fault - more that of the place and the times.A book that you should read but wouldn't really want to. My biggest reservation is the book's superficiality - although these are lived experiences the writer is kind of on the outside and describes where I would have liked some deeper analysis.
  adrianburke | Oct 24, 2020 |
This book was suggested as a way to understand the Trump voter base, and needing some enlightenment on that topic, I jumped in. JD Vance is a self-proclaimed hillbilly, based on his geographical roots in Appalachian KY, though his family was part of the other (lesser-known) Great Migration to the North, settling in the Rust Belt of southern OH. Most of the area also came from Appalachia, bringing its code of conduct and view of the world with it. His childhood was spent in Middletown where Armco Steel employed his Pawpaw and funded the town, especially its amenities, until the 80s when it merged with a Japanese company and eventually shut down. JD grew up with an extended network of people, though little stability. His grandparents, Pawpaw and Mawmaw though far from virtuous were the best things in his life. His father was absent and was replaced by a revolving door of men his troubled mother dated or married. He was actually adopted by one, though he did not stick around long either. He is close to a half-sister and has various relationships with cousins, aunts and uncles in a clannish loyalty that is not always healthy. Few among this crowd are role models for success, if we are talking about success in the white, middle-class incarnation. It is a morass of social ills to sort out: unemployment, substance abuse, welfare dependency, teenage pregnancy, violence (most often in the form of vengeance) and little hope or reliance on education. Since it is a memoir, Vance comes at it from personal experience and he does experience all the above. And since memory is not linear, the narrative feels a bit jumbled at times and personal in a way that is hard to extrapolate to a whole section of the country, though Vance assures us that his experience is pretty representative of low (or no) income whites who feel disenfranchised both by the disappearance of available labor and the policies of a liberal (black) presidency. "There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day......The Pew Economic Mobility Project studied how Americans evaluated their chances at economic betterment, and what they found is shocking: there is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites." (194) Vance has overcome these odds, though it wasn't always his intention and his odyssey is an interesting mix of luck and choice and as he is quick to point out, intervention (though not from the government). Having crossed to the "other side" after graduating Yale Law school, he notes: "social mobility isn't just about money and economics, it's about a lifestyle change. The wealthy and powerful aren't just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best and unhealthy at worst." (207) Though I found the book interesting, I was more disheartened than anything; while Vance did a good job of chronicling the reality, there is not much in the way of solutions. His success seems like a one-off more than a how-to for others to follow. Stay tuned, America. ( )
  CarrieWuj | Oct 24, 2020 |
I loved reading this thought-provoking memoir. Many of the people in J.D. Vance's story read like fascinating characters, and reminded me so much of people I remembered from my childhood in rural Virginia. Several years ago I watched an ABC News Documentary about what life is like in this region today and was really surprised at just how deep in poverty people are living, so very nearby. The images of the people I saw in that program have stayed with me for years, coming to mind from time to time and leaving me wondering what will happen to them, and all of us. How can we make things more fair for all Americans, especially if their struggle remains un-examined? Vance sheds some light on this struggle and the resilience of these people. ( )
  klnbennett | Oct 7, 2020 |
Hillbilly Elegy was very popular when it was first published in 2016, and I can see why. Vance's first-person description of the distressed working class (and below) "Hillbilly" communities of the Appalachian Mountains he grew up in. The first half to two-thirds of the book are more interesting than the final chapters, to put it mildly. Vance is a good writer, and his narratives of his early family troubles, his mother's addictions, his grandparents' taking over of his and his sister's raising and the ways in which these events are indicative of the conditions and problems of their rural Kentucky community are absorbing. The points Vance has to make in retrospect about these matters ring true enough.

But I found the final 60 pages or so of Vance's memoir to be excruciating, unfortunately. Vance is, of course, a success story. That success was hard earned and, as Vance certainly allows, against the odds, a product, to a large extent, of the support of his grandparents, a type of familial help that many young people of his world don't receive. As admirable as Vance's "against the odds" success is, though, his attempts to jam the square peg of his upper mobility into the round peg of his community's problems don't ring true. So his long description of his time at Yale Law School, for example, simply made me impatient. He wants the reader to believe that his discomfort at entering the elite and singular social world at Yale because he had no one to tell him what to expect. I really don't think anybody knows what to expect at Yale until he or she gets there. Once Vance rises above the lifestyle problems of his community that do, in fact, hold down many of his peers, I would have found it more useful, and interesting, for Vance to circle back and take a hard look at that community from the outside, rather than giving us a blow-by-blow description of his life at Yale and afterwards. Vance description of his own struggles to control the anger and overreaction that pervaded his home, and all the homes he knew, as a youth are fair enough. But overall for the last few chapters I felt like the story was over but Vance was still talking.

Overall, I felt that this memoir was worth reading, even with its flaws. ( )
  rocketjk | Oct 3, 2020 |
I have mixed feelings on this book. I think that it is J.D. Vance's "truth," and I am rating it accordingly, because it's an interesting tale, but as someone who grew up in a poor area with few to no opportunities, I think he comes from an interesting place of relative privilege and he's looking down on people he doesn't understand nearly as well as he thinks he does.

By the standards of my hometown, J.D.'s living conditions make him middle class. Now, by some standards we're poor, but where we live the small paycheck allowed our caretakers to own homes, we always had food, we weren't shivering in the winter, and sweating to death in the summer because our utilities didn't get shut off. Heck, there was money left over for clothes. That's middle class by the standard of many rural towns like mine. (Yes, this is a sad comment on the American rural middle class. Yes, we knew we were actually poor, we watched tv, but compared to the over 50% of "actual poor people" who got free school lunches, we were doing okay.)

This difference in perception of class made me view the rest of his life with a little skepticism. After all, J.D. and I were on fairly equal footing, with tiny variations. He fully recognizes the safety nets in his life, like his grandmother and the ability to go stay with his biological father, but I don't know that he understands how much of an extra foothold that afforded him, or how that in itself was a form of relative privilege.

He also fails to see the privilege of his race and gender. He is disdainful of the woman next door with multiple children and the welfare check, but where are her options? Sex ed is abyssmal, women are nearly always left with the responsibility of resulting children, and childcare is so expensive that a week of it may exceed the Friday paycheck.

He pretty much fails to remark on race at all, and treats class differences as the real divider. Let me assure you, racism is alive and well in the lower class, and the **** trickles down even worse if you're not white. I watched it happen. Maybe J.D. had no black friends or acquaintances in his rural town, but I sure saw enough of it.

Privilege is relative, and as an intelligent, white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian male, J.D. misses out on the strikes many live with and extols the virtue that he worked hard and that's how he got where he is. He did work hard. So did I. He should be proud of that. I am. I've been disgusted by lazy people around me, but many of those lazy people were from wealthier families than I was and therefore made out a lot better than I did. Working hard is required only of the poorer classes. The relatively rich don't have to work nearly so hard, and yet it is the poor we admonish with the bootstrap philosophy. Poverty is seen as a self-inflicted punishment, rather than a societal violence forced on others, and we therefore feel safe in shaking our heads and bemoaning the fall of the middle class due to laziness and greed. I agree, it is laziness and greed, but very rarely is it the poor that are lazy and greedy.

Speaking personally, my hard work was a launching point because I was in a better position than some to receive opportunities and help. I will say, one of my major takeaways was "poor people" vs. "networking," as explained by J.D. Networking creates opportunities, but it's perceived as cheating where I'm from. We've so internalized that hard work will get you places that we won't ask you to notice it. In the world of the more upwardly mobile, networking is a 100% normal way of doing good business and climbing the corporate ladder. It's considered posturing and laziness in the rural landscape. (I think that's what really pisses me off about this book - you want to meet a group of people who have internalized the ability to judge everyone around them for not working as hard as they do - poor people. We keep tabs. Therefore, J.D.'s "people should just work harder" is a/ such an obvious disease within poorer/rural areas and also b/ such utter BS because we're doing it. We're doing it all the time because we have too. It is primarily the rich that get by on laziness.)

I think this WaPo article helps sum up some of my thoughts. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/i-grew-up-in-poverty-in-appalachia-jd-va...

The book is interesting, but it's one POV. I know this book is a revelation to much of intellectual (upper-middle class) America, but speaking as a kid growing up in this world, he doesn't get it all right, and he's internalized a lot of the negativity around poverty that just further breaks us down. His story is one story, not all stories. ( )
  lclclauren | Sep 12, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 254 (next | show all)
added by janw | editNew Yorker, Josh Rothman (Sep 12, 2016)
 

» Add other authors (4 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vance, J. D.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Carlson-Stanisic, LeahDesignersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
HarperAudioPublishersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heuvelmans, TonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Raynaud, VincentTraductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, JarrodCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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Vance, a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, provides an 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. 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. 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.

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