Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

A friend suggested I read Hillbilly Elegy because it had given her a lot to think about regarding culture and family and the deciding factors of life's trajectories. Given that it's a pseudo-memoir from a man who grew up in Appalachia, I can say with almost perfect certainty that I wouldn't have picked it up without her suggestion. Here's why - I feel as though my entire education was pinhole-focused on the experiences of white Europeans and white Americans. What I did know about Vance's so-called "hillbillies" is that Howard Zinn showed me how vindictively governments have exploited the fears of poor whites so that they would not see their struggle as the same struggle as people of color, thereby preventing the people from rising up together. Vance's account showed me more about the nuances and depths of social mobility from the perspective of Appalachia.


All throughout the book, I kept looking back at the author's book jacket photo and asking myself, "Would we be friends, J.D. Vance?" I stared into his steely blue eyes and read that he now works for a leading Silicon Valley investment firm (hedge fund managers being a polarizing set for me). But with quotes like, "For those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us," I was intrigued to learn more about his journey. In summary, Hillbilly Elegy gave me vertigo.

The vertigo set in almost immediately, as he began with, "This is not a story about why white people have more to complain about than black people or any other group." (phew, ok) but continued with, "I hope the readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism," WHOA. Hold up. That's not a thing, Vance. In America, you don't just activate and de-activate the "racial prism filter" like Valencia or Toaster on Insta. When discussing the opportunity and health of our communities, we cannot extract race or class (or all the other facets of intersectionality). He says his people were day laborers in a slave economy (they were not enslaved themselves) and then they were sharecroppers (not shackled to the indignities of Jim Crow), and then they were coal miners, millworkers and machinists (both groups with available employment and housing.) When his grandmother dies, he tells how he's stopped by a state trooper going 90 in a 75 mph zone but when he tells the officer why he's rushing, he gets clearance to go over 100 mph all the way to his destination...instead of being shot dead in his vehicle, which is what any person of color could expect from the same situation.

So I waded into the book with skepticism.

Where it got interesting was how Vance described the impact of generational poverty and the denial of being in that poverty. Vance seems as perplexed as I am about a culture that prides itself on hard work on the one hand and possesses a lack of control of one's future on the other. The anger and resentment that is passed down, the feeling of being "owed" something, blaming the government or everything else about your life, the rampant consumerism of holidays and stuff to make you feel like you're not at the's all there. And I could see myself doing the same things had I grown up in the chaos and violence J.D. describes, but from an intellectual sense, it's a total paradox.

He talks about getting through an incredibly abusive and tumultuous childhood and into college at Yale. One day, a fellow student goes off about the Marines fighting in Iraq being testosterone-swilling warmongers. Vance shares, "My friends spanned the political spectrum, some with no love for George W. Bush who felt we'd sacrificed too much for too little gain." Broad generalizations of any group are not productive, and so went challenging my own views of Eastern Kentucky. 

And in another segment, Vance describes being courted after law school by fancy firms that are wining and dining him. "When you go from working class to professional class, almost everything about your life becomes unfashionable at best and unhealthy at worst." On this point, I could relate because when I started at Google, I had the feeling that I'd duped them into hiring me. I  didn't know how to act in a business meeting, how to book a flight, what wine to order... I hadn't been to half the places my colleagues had visited as children and my clothing was from Kohl's or the mall. 

And what does he attribute as the secret to his "success"? Simply that he had someone who knew and loved him (his grandparents) looking out for him. Just that. As tumultuous and rocky (and downright nuts, if I may say so) a childhood he had, this stability helped him take control of his future.

"Are we tough enough to face the mirror and see that our conduct harms our children?" Vance shares. Raise your hand if the same could not be said about your community? Anyone? Yeah, didn't think so. Overall, Hillbilly Elegy made me check my assumptions about the lived experience of a "hillbilly". And it made me make room in the margins amidst my biases. 

But you're not off the hook for calling Yale a "low-stress school", my...friend?