Saturday, May 13, 2017

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

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
By J.D. Vance (Author and Narrator)
Audiobook published June 2016 by HarperAudio

Narrated by J.D. Vance himself, I found this book refreshing to hear a personal account of growing up in Appalachia explaining his first hand experience that they have their own mentality.  There seems to be a general cultural consensus in this lower middle class that the rich people and corporations are to blame for their circumstances. Vance proceeds to explain throughout the rest of the book his own experiences growing up in the culture, from the parade of boyfriends his mother had masquerading as father figures to his older sister playing surrogate mother as a teenager to him when their mother wouldn't be able to function due to her addictions.

He'd spend more time at their grandparents house than at "home," which included moving several times throughout his high school years. Vance touched on the learning curves he experienced when joining the Marines, going to college at Ohio State, and eventually to Yale Law School. Things more privileged students would presumably learn in school or from their parents, like balancing a check book, comparing banks before taking out loans or opening an account, buying a car, and job networking, were things he had no idea existed and fortunately was able to learn them through mentors and the structure provided to him by the Marines and higher education.

This sub-culture of the US was always kind of an abstract picture that was painted for me, something I couldn't relate to because it is far from what I had experienced, let alone understand. Something I am grateful for never having experienced, and I had a bit of a wow moment when Vance wrote that "The life I live now is the stuff of fantasy of my childhood." This middle class lifestyle is so new and foreign to him that it probably feels like he's living in a dream or "fantasy world" as he called it. The short statement is poignant yet significant and profoundly summarizing how it's possible for people from his upbringing are indeed able to "get out" of the poor lifestyle. As difficult as it was for him to face the realities of a poor upbringing, he was still able to rise up and succeed. Through the genuine love and support he received from his mamaw and papaw, and his sister Lindsey, he was able to persevere via his own grit and attitude.

Part memoir and part social analysis of the "dirt poor but in love" culture, Vance eloquently shed light on the "it's not our fault, it's your fault and you need to fix it for us" mentality that exists in America, perhaps providing some kind of explanation as to why President Trump got elected. Yet, he proceeds to point out that policies can only go so far and the people need to take responsibility for their own actions.

A quote that is so much more profound coming from someone who lived the hillbilly life that sums up the book very well, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better,” Vance writes. “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up."

Rating: 5 out of 5


  1. Great review! I really enjoyed this book as well. I loved learning about the "great migration" and the culture described that I know little of. Great read.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review

    1. Thank you for your comment! I also loved the historical and cultural context he provided, in addition to his own families history.

  2. I also had a VERY different upbringing (New Englander here!) than the author and found this book incredibly educational. He really knows how to explain "hillbilly" culture in a way that makes it accessible to people from very different backgrounds. Great review!

    1. Thanks for the feedback! I grew up outside of Philly and am now also in New England as well. I agree, and he also explained it in a way that wasn't condescending.