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

5 stars

The author writes about his rise out of a family and culture (Appalachian poor whites of Scots-Irish, Protestant descent) of poverty, violence, addiction, and divorce to a successful life that included graduation from high school; four years in the Marines; graduation from Ohio State; Yale Law School; and a successful career and marriage. The reader is exposed to the positive and negative social forces that helped shape him: a mother who taught him to love reading and praised his academic accomplishments, but who nevertheless was erratic, violent, threatening, drug-addicted, and married five times; an older sister who helped protect him; a mamaw and papaw (maternal grandparents) who gave him unconditional love and support despite his mamaw being a gun-toting, foul-mouthed former murderer and his papaw being a reformed alcoholic, who in his drinking days was violent and disrespectful of his wife. Vance struggles with the notion of how much societal forces vs. the individual’s own decisions play in determining the outcome of a person’s life. He points to the idea that his mother’s unstable family life of violence and alcoholism contributed to her failures as an adult, but he puts equal responsibility on her given decisions to leave his father, uproot him and his sister, and indulge in recurrent drug addiction. He further blames his mother’s choices by pointing out that her two siblings with the same childhood influences wound up leading stable lives in adulthood. Vance indicates that “hillbillies” blame societal influences on their plight, rather than blaming their own choices. He also states that the government policies of welfare aid contribute to the poor class’s “learned helplessness.” Yet he points out that just as that class should not blame everything on their history and family life, so too the upper class cannot attribute success only to their individual choices and perseverance since their money and privilege have significant influence on their success. Vance remains questioning, and the reader becomes aware that there may not be a binary issue of societal influence vs. individual choices, but rather more complex issues at play and there are more questions to be tackled. As important, Vance elicits the reader’s empathy as he gives a face and reality to the “poor whites” of Appalachia and the Rust Belt–people about whom many Americans (including this one) have had limited knowledge and less understanding.

— Lynn H.

Call No.: B Vance

Posted in Summer Reading 2017 Adult.