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

I am very torn in regards to this review.  I read Hillbilly Elegy because I wanted to practice what I preach…that is, to read and try and understand different political views from my own.  I can’t say that J.D. Vance changed my mind on anything but I can appreciate that he tried to show his side of things in a well written and eloquent manner.  My main issues with this book are not that I don’t agree with much of what he thinks or believes but that he discusses the issues “hillbillys” have in the United States today but doesn’t offer any solutions for how to overcome the obstacles that exist within this group.  I wanted more of a guide than he offered.

This book is not only the history of the Vance family but an exploration of the white working class and their decline over the past forty years.  Using his family as a reference, Vance talks about how the migration from Kentucky to Ohio was seen as a way out of the lower class into middle class and how this change in status came to define an entire generation of workers.  With an emphasis on his nontraditional upbringing and improbable success story, Vance writes about the struggles of his community in a very true way.

As I said above, my issues with this book are not Vance’s writing or even his beliefs.  He is very honest about why he seemed to survive and flourish in life despite where he grew up and unflinchingly details his own mother’s shortcomings and struggles with abuse. He is even, at times, brutally honest about the people in his community.  One quote that stuck out to me is when he is talking about who to blame for the circumstances his community finds themselves in “We’ll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance—the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.” He takes him time to explain his family’s history and the hopes they had once they moved to Ohio and the smashing of those dreams brought on by years of struggle and futility.  I can empathize, to a point, with him and his family and commend him for doing all he could to make his life better and succeed where most everyone in his family failed.   He doesn’t mince words when it comes his community and I appreciated that but there were sometimes I felt that he wasn’t discussing the whole picture, especially when it comes to political differences.  There is a passage in which he tries to explain why the white working class didn’t like the Obama family that I thought missed the mark a bit.  “Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”  He doesn’t even acknowledge that there is the possibility that the dislike for the Obama family is purely race based.  I wish he would have dug a little deeper into the racial side of the politics in this community.

To me, what the book lacks is a clear and concise way to change the circumstances of the middle class working population.  He says that the government can only do so much and the change has to happen at the local level but doesn’t offer any ideas on how to do that.  He admits that a lot of his community’s failings are self-inflicted but doesn’t tell the reader how this community can help themselves.  I really wanted something more to show that he is working with this community to get out of the hole they are in and ways in which the reader can go forward after reading this book to help them.  How can we as a society expect people to change if we don’t know the ways in which to help them?

Overall, I’m glad I read this book and feel more knowledgeable about white, working class people but wish there was more written about steps forward from here.  I enjoyed his writing, however, and appreciate how open and honest he was about his family and the struggles he faced.

Author: J.D. Vance

Published: 2016

Rating: 3 Stars

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