Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir by J.D. Vance, a relatively insignificant man by his own admission. He notes in the beginning of the book that he is still quite young and hasn’t done much worthy of note. Nonetheless, he feels that sharing his life story is important, particularly now in this time period of American history where the gulf between rich and poor, city and countryside, Democrat and Republican, has never seemed starker. Vance’s purpose here is to talk about his upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, and, by doing so, help people better understand that forgotten part of America that rarely features in the news. In this, I think he succeeds admirably.
To be honest, writing this is difficult because of how powerful Vance’s memories of his childhood are. How can you write an objective review when you feel so much in common with someone else’s life experience? This is especially ironic because his background and mine are so different. I grew up in a stable and fairly rich Texas suburbia within a quick drive of two cities. I had dedicated and hard-working parents who got along just fine. By comparison, Vance grew up in a town pained and listless from the slow failure and disappearance of manufacturing work. He had an absent father, a mother who had a net negative effect on his life, and was raised by a stubborn and determined grandmother who refused to leave him behind. Vance’s writing is so compelling, so welcoming and empathetic, that I still felt a strong kindred connection to his upbringing, no matter these differences. That alone is worth the price of admission.
But this book is much more than a simple retelling of one man’s youth. Vance’s goal here is to help you understand that the people he grew up with don’t fit the stereotype. They aren’t inherently racist, unintelligent, or blind followers of one party or another. They are men and women who take staunch pride in and unite around stories of how many soldiers their town put forward during World War II. They hold to beliefs more reminiscent of an idyllic America, and their patriotism reflects it. Family to them is more important than anything. If there is any dissent in the family, you don’t show or share it with others. Working hard without complaint is how you achieve the American Dream. It’s what they were all taught and how our culture defined them. And nobody gets away with insulting their mommas.
This comes across as idealized, but Vance is fair and multifaceted in depicting his Appalachian ancestors (his grandparents grew up in Kentucky and then moved to Ohio for job opportunity) along with his experience in Middletown. He depicts his family as fighting constantly. Pregnancy occurs at an early age and often derails the life of the family member involved. Altercations with the police are frequent. The result is the painting of an imperfect people, but who isn’t? The effect is to humanize his family, his neighbors, and this entire subsection of the American population who, like it or not, felt that the “basket of deplorables” comment was directed straight at them. Altogether, Vance’s telling of his story becomes a juxtaposition of horrible family tragedy and a soaring romanticization of the values they encouraged him to uphold regardless.
This is seen countless times throughout the book. You cry as Vance’s mother spirals helplessly into drug abuse and neglect. And then you cheer as his grandmother confronts her, saying that, if she mistreats Vance again, his mother will be talking to the barrel of a gun. You resent yet sympathize with Vance’s older sister when she marries and then leaves Vance to go as far away from her traumatizing childhood as she can. But you appreciate her for having come across as a paragon of sanity in her youth, somehow helping to raise Vance and face their mother almost on her lonesome despite being only a handful of years older than him. Vance himself is barely saved from drugs, homelessness, and worse by his independent choice to join the Army, something which his grandmother can’t bear to talk to him about. Nevertheless, endless letters come to him in boot camp from her where she cusses out his commanding officers at length, which are as heartwarming to the reader as they undoubtedly were to him.
Left Behind by a Modernizing World
Moments like the one above are revelatory; I grew up with the belief that the United States military preys on lower-income kids like Vance to pad out their ranks with expendable recruits. But Vance shows me another side, how the discipline of the training and support of his higher officers helped save him from a dark life that would have eventually consumed him. Hillbilly Elegy is full of teachable moments like this that made me question and broaden my wordview. I bookmarked it extensively just so I could go back and remind myself of them later, something which I have never done with a book before.
There are a number of other social ideas which I have held to but the book helped make me question. I’ve always thought that, if your job disappears (like manufacturing work did for Middletown), you should simply move to where you can find new work. Vance points out that many people just could not do this. Declining house values trapped many of his neighbors in Middletown; the costs of moving were so high that they just could not escape. Thus a scenario was created where the poorest of the town were trapped and made to suffer with part-time jobs if they could find any work at all, while the more wealthy inhabitants left, creating a “brain drain.” This exacerbated the problem and helped to create communities that have justifiably, albeit sadly, perceived the American Dream as having left them behind.
Intermittently throughout the book, Vance dwells upon what could help these citizens in Middletown who could not escape through the military like he did. But these always have caveats. He points to the church as being a consistently positive and unifying force in peoples’ lives and a bulwark against suffering. Yet Vance also notes how religion created an echo chamber for ideas such as young-earth creationism, disbelief in evolution, and other such concepts that made it harder for his neighbors and himself to acclimate themselves and get jobs outside of this inward-looking culture. Payday lending becomes a surprising beneficiary of Vance’s praise. He tells a story about how a quick three-day payday loan allowed him to avoid a significant overdraft fee on his credit card, and he rightly points out how legislators that attack such businesses don’t mention or comprehend situations like this that can affect the poor.
Altogether, Hillbilly Elegy is an incredible memoir that ends up being so much more than I thought it would be. I confronted and thought about social issues that, before reading, I thought I had pegged and understood. I encountered lessons about parenting and family that made me consider my own upbringing and what I could do to help a sibling of mine who has gone through his own period of drift and adversity. What held all this together was a story that, while on paper mundane, shook me to my core and made me want to further visit and understand the lives of Americans that are unlike myself and have had different life experiences. I could not have hoped for anything more from this book, and I hope that anyone who reads this tries it out too.