On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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