Book #29: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance has been on my wish list for a while now, so I was excited when Ben finally bought it for himself. After waiting a polite amount of time, I borrowed and devoured this book. Vance and his family are from the Appalachia region of Kentucky near the Ohio border. In order to take a steady job at a factory, his grandparents cross the border to Middletown, Ohio and join a large blue-collar settlement. As Vance recounts his childhood, split between Kentucky and Ohio, he examines the negative changes in a slice of society – the white working-class – from his grandparents’ generation to his mother’s to his own. As he states in the introduction to the book, “my primary aim is not to convince you of a documented problem. My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck” (p. 8). With great insight, he shows how the idealistic hopes of providing a better life for the next generation can go awry, and how the problems of the poor are much more complex than what can be reduced to a news headline or public policy. His writing is incredibly self-aware as he portrays with great talent and realism his family members, all who¬†live in a tension between lovable and appalling. In the end, J. D. Vance himself is an underdog success story: from a poor, dysfunctional family he goes on to the Marines and Yale Law School. And he ends the book with hopeful encouragement that if individuals get involved (not just government), we can change the course of our cultural decay. This excellent book is very helpful to evoke empathy and understanding for a way of life to which I had not previously been exposed, and I highly recommend it for everyone to read.

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