Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Title: Hillbilly Elegy
Author: J.D. Vance
Year Published: 2016

Genre: Adult non-fiction
Pages: 257
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2017 Google Reading map)USA (OH, KY)

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my dad

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis--that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring ow for over forty years, has been reported with growing ten about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck. 

The Vance family story began with hope in post-war 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 one of their grandchildren would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of success in achieving generational upward mobility. But as the family saga Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that J.D.'s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, never fully escaping the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. With piercing honesty, Vance shows how he himself still carries around the demons of his chaotic family history.

Review: My brother sent this to my dad for my dad's Birthday and my dad passed it on to me. It is not only interesting, but timely. First, I thought "hillbilly" was a negative and derogatory term, but the author seems to claim it for himself, his family, his friends, and neighbors who all live in Kentucky. So, hillbilly it is.

This book is interesting as a sociological look at a group of people in my country with whom I never have contact: mostly poor, working class, southern, conservative, Christians who have not experienced higher education. Living in southern California, that group seems foreign to me. More foreign than the Latino population in my town, many of whom truly are from another country! I hope that doesn't come off badly. I just think we forget how big this country is and how diverse all the pockets really are. I (we?) tend to think of diversity in terms of race, but really, social class and religion play a huge role as well.

Vance's story of growing up in southwest Ohio, with vacation visits to eastern Kentucky, made me realize how Trump got elected president. Vance talks about the lack of jobs and opportunity in general, the attitude of inertia, and the simple way that hillbillies view the world. I don't mean simple as in bad or stupid, but simple as in life is straightforward. The Democrats didn't have a chance with their intellectual and long explanation of policy.

The most fascinating part of the book for me was the end when the author discusses his time at Yale Law School. It seems that is the time and place where his culture clashed most with his surroundings. He encounters people who have lived a completely different life from his own and he realizes that his fellow students have had vastly different experiences from his own that allow them to make assumptions about things he didn't even know existed (and easy example is the multitude of silverware at a dinner party or trusting people you don't know).

Challenges this counts for:


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