Friday, July 28, 2017

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

I didn't like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance (published 2016).  I'm somewhat alone on this in that the book has received very good reviews.  It has been described as the book to be reading if you want to understand the white working class in rural and rust belt America and so I was curious. But Hillbilly Elegy left me annoyed and somewhat depressed and I have been trying to figure out why.

On the plus side, J. D. Vance has an inspiring story to tell.   He is a former Marine, served in Iraq, graduated from Yale Law School.  But what makes his story particularly remarkable is the childhood he came from. Absent father, drug addicted emotionally volatile mother, new husbands and boyfriends moving into the home. Eventually it was decided that young Vance would live with his grandparents who he rightly credits with providing stability and saving his life

It's an important story about a wildly screwed up family and the havock they can wreak through several generations. And if that was the tale the author told and if he had been more specific about how he dug himself out of such a tough start his memoir might have been more affecting and more true.  But I wasn't moved by Hillbilly Elegy and the reason is that maybe as a way to protect his grandparents and great uncles  the author romanticizes who they were.  Granted Vance has criticisms to make but too often he sees their considerable flaws as strengths rooted in Hillbilly culture:

"I believe we hillbillies are the toughest (expletive) people on this earth We take an electric saw to the hide of those who insult our mother.  We make young men consume cotton undergarments to protect a sister's honor ... but are we tough enough to do what needs to be done to help a kid like Brian? ... Are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?

The above men were the author's great uncles, Uncle Pet who took a saw to a man who cursed at him and Uncle Teaberry who forced a man at knifepoint who had insulted his sister to eat her undergarments.  This was not the 1800's but the mid 20th century.  And then we have Vance's grandparents.  As to who they were it wasn't pretty but they cleaned up their act a year or two before the author ws born and were able to provide a safe environment for young Vance that they did not give their daughter, the author's mother, when she was growing up.

The author's family story is too extreme in my opinion to be representative of any one part of the country unless their is an epidemic of wives setting fire to husbands who come home drunk (his grandparents in their younger days) and their young daughter rushing in to put out the flames.  Seeing his story as his hillbilly legacy romanticizes a sad situation which is going on in many parts of the country and not specific to geography.


  1. I had thought about reading this. It does sound more like the story of one family that is not typical. There is a tendency to stereotype groups. White working class folks get stereotyped like everyone else.

    Great review.

    1. Thanks Brian. I can't recommend it. When I really like a book I have so many things to say about why. I have found it harder to review books I don't care for and to pinpoint why. Oh well, on the next book!

  2. Interesting review--I know a number of people of read this, and have read several reviews. I decided to opt out and I'm glad I did. It does sound depressing but with an agenda. And, as you said, I shudder to think that this is truly representative of a region.

    1. Hi Jane, In one sense it might be representative in that his mother was addicted to pills and there is an opiod crisis in the Ohio/Kentucky region. But I just felt the violence in his family too extreme and more representative of violent families in general than any one oart of the country. Also it is a depressing read.