Book Note: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance


A bookstagrammer commented on one of my photo’s recently that Hillbilly Elegy was on her TBR pile. I tried to respond with a couple words of what to expect, and I came up with “intimate and perceptive.” I’m going to stick with those two descriptors. Intimate without getting bogged down in mud-throwing and finger-wagging offense. Perceptive without making searing judgments or resorting to stereotypes.

This book is first and foremost a memoir. It is the story of Vance’s childhood as a self-proclaimed hillbilly and all that leads up to his graduation from Yale with a law degree. As readers are introduced to the values of Vance’s family and community they can sense the deep loyalty and respect that Vance holds for his roots. This creates a sense of trust when he moves from the personal to the political. Though not explicitly a memoir to address poverty and disadvantage through political solutions, Vance does take time to make some connections that consider the past and future.

Vance does not mince words when discussing the challenges and limits of deeply ingrained attitudes and behaviors. He brings to the book an insider/outsider perspective and is able to pinpoint from his experiences what was of most benefit to him and why. He confronts his own realizations navigating between his home and the experiences he has in the Marines, in college, and then at Yale Law School. He recognizes the disadvantages he had, the obstacles he faced, and the potential for even well-intentioned solutions to be burdensome and misguided. It is a complicated tangle of people, attitude, and behavior. He does not set out to offer political answers, this is a memoir not a how-to guide, but reading his story will elevate readers’ understanding of the forces at play and introduce them to one perspective on the work to be done. Vance is honest and critical but always with a tone of respect and empathy when talking about his life in Middletown, Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky; and, he is honest and critical and self-deprecating when examining the effects of his upbringing in his own personal growth.

Hillbilly Elegy presents a unique, likable, and honest perspective. It is a readable personal history confronting abiding socio-economic discrepancies with a healthy dose of humor. You should read Hillbilly Elegy for Vance’s perspective, observations, humor, and graciousness. Vance’s acknowledgement and owning of his upbringing creates a generous and thoughtful introduction to a section of American society largely relegated to stereotypes. But if that isn’t enough to convince you, you should really be introduced to Mamaw.

Though I wouldn’t tag the book as one where I liked all the characters, my estimation of many of the key players increased with each page I turned. If any one person epitomized the good and bad that Vance chronicles in his memoir it is Mamaw. She may at first come across as one of those aforementioned stereotypes, but she will shatter that simplicity with her force of will, nuanced beliefs, perceptive decisions, and undying and undeniable love for her family. I oscillated between fearing her, admiring her, wondering at her, and respecting her. 

Hillbilly Elegy is a good read. The story is remarkable, the insights are invaluable, and the people are dynamic. Recommend.

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