Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis  – ★★★★1/2
“Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I’d say “the feeling that our choices don’t matter” [Vance, 2016: 177].
Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a man J. D. Vance, who talks about his childhood (being raised by his single, troubled mother with two children), adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in one of the poorest regions in America. This deeply personal, eye-opening book, which is also both sad and inspirational, provides a glimpse into the Appalachian culture and various (historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural) circumstances that shape its people. It is about the state of one part of America some would not like to acknowledge fully or whose issues some misunderstand. J. D. sheds away some of the stereotypes surrounding his people, while, at the same time, fairly and bravely acknowledges (people’s) personal and societal responsibilities for many disastrous societal and economic circumstances. This memoir on how class and family affect the poor, as seen through the eyes of one boy raised in one disadvantaged family, is a book hard to forget.
In the introduction to the book, J.D. writes: “I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children”. It is impossible not to heed these words. J. D. is clear in his book that that he is just an ordinary guy and not some talented person worthy of an autobiography. His main purpose in this book is to draw attention to the plight of thousands of his people living in poverty and seeing no hope, as well as to pay tribute to people who helped him succeed in life against all odds. In a non-linear fashion, J. D. tells us how he was born in 1984 and had a “chaotic” upbringing with a “revolving door of father figures”. While he was first in Jackson, Kentucky, he soon travelled with his family to live in Middletown, Ohio, and details the changing political and socio-economic situations in the region dominated by working class conservatives. His family’s poverty, the particular culture he was born into, the lack of stable home, and his imperfect mother with her numerous boyfriends, all contributed to him being constantly torn between hopelessness and love for his family, between helplessness stemming from poverty and (irrational) hope for a better future. J. D. Vance then talks about his grandparents (Paw and Mamaw) and their experiences around the end of the 1940s, noting that “this book is about …what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south”.
One of the great things about the book is that J. D. does not want to romanticise his people and culture, and say that the poor have been solely the victims of their own circumstances. He is honest, stating that the issue is complex and that parents must face up to their responsibilities when raising their children. Thus, there are no heroes or perfect people in his account, and some people in his account have only themselves to blame for their violent behaviour, drunkenness and drug abuse. Rather, the author’s point is that the complex interaction of elements (including cultural and psychological) can mean that children grow up with the innate feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, and, when becoming adults, believe they cannot change anything about themselves or their circumstances. “I learned that no single book, or expert, or field could fully explain the problems of hillbillies in modern America. Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith”, writes J. D. Vance. Poverty, violence and drug addiction at home, unstable homes, complex family relations, low self-esteem, wrong (aggressive) role models, lack of visible opportunities, the culture of the unity of Appalachian people “against others”, pessimism and discrimination, are just some of the factors facing young children who have to find themselves while having in mind these factors in their impressionable childhood. After all, one cannot escape one’s family and childhood, especially when one continues to love the former and will always remember the lessons from the latter (“the kids in Middletown absorb the conflict and struggle with it”). The author states that sometimes something as simple as a drive to be better than others, as well as a stable home, can make all the difference for a child’s future.
The second half of the book may not as interesting as the first since we read in the second half how J. D. applies and is being accepted to a law school after his experience as a marine. One of the most inspirational, touching and heart-warming things about the novel, however, is J. D.’s relationship with his grandmother or “Mamaw”, who is presented as being quite a character in the book. The book could as well have been called “Mamaw: A Tribute”. J. D. was lucky in this respect because it was his grandmother who provided him with a stable, loving home when his mother’s was in pieces. It was also his grandmother that preached responsibility, discipline and hard-work to J. D., realising first in his family that “social class is not just about money, but also the relationships you form”.
Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir with a sympathetic person at its centre who tries both to draw attention to many issues facing poor people in the region of Appalachia, as well as to pay tribute to people who helped him succeed in life. It becomes clear from his account that poverty and particular socio-economic conditions in the region stem from a complex chain of events and “reactions”, fuelled by a particular historical context, prevalent culture and attitudes of the people. There is a lot for a reader to take from this book, not least the idea that, before we judge others, we must first born them and walk in their shoes – then, who knows what our responses to the society would be? or what mode of behaviour we would adopt, when we do not have much choice from birth? Indifference and the lack of compassion towards others; the lack of love and support in a family; as well as the lack of belief in oneself and one’s own abilities, are the greatest perils to overcome. Hillbilly Elegy is an insightful book, which is also, unlike some other memoirs, a fascinating read.