Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

This book, subtitled A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, is exactly that, a memoir.  Hard to think of a memoir written by someone who was only 31 years old when he wrote it! Vance himself confesses the absurdity of this in his introduction where he writes, “I didn’t write this book because I’ve accomplished something extraordinary.  I wrote this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grow up like me.  You see, I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.”

And so Vance begins to tell his story. What makes this story compelling is that, while it tells of all the ways in which the decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States has left people behind, he is unflinchingly honest about the ways in which many of his people, whom he calls “hillbillies,” have brought about their own demise and their own lack of hope – their lack of care for their children, their sinking into the drug culture, their laziness and lack of any self-awareness.

Vance’s own family has had its difficulties.  As he writes, “I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction for nearly my entire life.”  He himself came close to flunking out of high school: “Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me.  That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book.  I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it.  I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children.  I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it.  I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels.  And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”

Vance clearly has a great love for the people about whom he writes, particularly his crazy grandmother and grandfather – and “crazy” is his word, not mine.  This love comes shining through the book even when he sees clearly how the ways in which they act have negative effects on everyone around them.

— Jeanie Smith

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