Hillbilly Elegy: A Family and Culture in Crisis
by J. D. Vance
Summary: From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
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As soon as I read the synopsis for J. D. Vance’s memoir I knew I had to read it. I grew up in Southern Illinois, not so far from “the holler” that Vance referred to so lovingly in the text and the people he was describing are my people. I felt akin to him somehow even though he grew up a state away from me.
The strife Vance describes in his book is universal among working-class whites. Our grandparent’s generation often grew up dirt poor and had out of wedlock children in their teens that led to shotgun marriages but they also had a booming economy and a growing workforce that allowed them to pick up and leave their drowning towns for the life raft of the industrial midwest.
Our generation has not been so lucky. The perpetuation of the idea that children will grow up and work in the factory, or in my area, the coal mine, like their daddies and make a decent living is now a long-dead dream of which working-class whites will not let go. Their unwavering loyalty to manufacturing and coal industries as well as a conservative party that convinces them to vote against their best interests is increasing the ever growing wage gap.
It would be years before I learned that no single book, or expert, or field, could fully explain the problem of hillbillies in America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.
J. D. Vance - Hillbilly Elegy
I like that while this book was an ode to his upbringing, especially the role that his grandparents played in raising him, Vance pulled no punches when addressing the hypocrisy of working-class whites. A community that lauds hard-work over all else but loses a job for not showing up, or leaving early and then has the audacity to get mad when they’re fired. People that will condemn recipients of food stamps and Obamacare are the same ones that are on “government assistance” and buy their health insurance through the affordable care act. He was also very blunt about how his time at Yale taught him that social collateral is integral to success and no amount of hard work can compete against a well placed recommendation or a timely phone call on your behalf.
Vance offered no solutions to the trials of working-class whites, only espoused his conservative viewpoint that government assistance couldn’t undo generations of neglect and poverty, a lackadaisical view on education and a sense of entitlement that they are “owed,” for what no one is sure. While I can see his reasoning, there must be a point where we as a society decide that this is a cycle that needs to be broken and until these folks are making a living wage at a steady job all of the other problems are not going to go away.
Have you read Hillbilly Elegy? Tell me what you think in the comments below or tweet me @dianneinwriting