Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance presents his rags-to-riches memoir at just 31 years old. A self-proclaimed “Kentucky hillbilly” turned Harvard Law School graduate reflects on a life lived within one of America’s poorest white communities.

Vance was born in the rural Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky to an absentee father and a troubled mother. A string of stepfathers, legal guardians, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and a sister raised J.D. the best they knew how. But, in hillbilly country, that meant that school didn’t matter, you lied so your family didn’t get arrested, and you beat anyone senseless if they insulted your mother.

Hillbilly Elegy describes the rural towns in this part of the country that are predominantly white and poor. Teen pregnancy (his grandmother became pregnant at 13), drug addiction (his mother), alcoholism (his father), and violence (nearly everyone) are just another Wednesday for young Vance. In search of a better future, his family makes the move to Middletown, Ohio: population 50,000. 

The historical significance of the mass migration of families from Appalachia to the Rust Belt lays the foundation for Vance’s life. Splitting time between his tiny hometown and the new world of a more urban environment leads to conflict and isolation.

Despite being a dysfunctional family, J.D. craves attention and affection from his mother, grandmother, and older sister. These women shape the author, for better or worse. Several deaths over the years reflect the strong familial ties held within the community. He wrestles with morality, religion, relatives, drugs, money, and education.

Vance doesn’t seek pity from readers, but I do feel for him as if he were a friend. I frequently had the urge to jump into the book to rescue the frightened schoolboy from his violent mother. To help the misguided child who doesn’t know anything else. He struggles to set his moral compass to the north as his family sets a poor example; yet, he wants to be a good person, to do better than his legacy.

A boy on the brink of adulthood, J.D. joins the Marines in an effort to forestall confusing college loans and the reality of caring for himself. Finally on his own after experiencing war, can J.D complete college? Go to law school? Leave the toxic culture of a beloved hometown?

Hillbilly Elegy works to unwind the divisive cultures of rural Appalachia from one man’s perspective. Vance writes an inspiring story that is engaging, with a hint of shock factor. He critiques the culture that feeds the vicious cycle of “self-imposed” poverty. Resilience and education leave him feeling torn between loyalty and self-improvement.

A quick, easy read that flows smoothly and efficiently. I’d recommend this for anyone wanting to widen their worldview or meet characters that can empathize with their own personal conflict.

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