Vance, J.D. (2016). Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York, NY: HarperCollins. 272 pp. $20.99 (hardcover). ISBN: 9780062300546
Review by: Almond Seals
Doctorate of Education candidate
University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
In Hillbilly Elegy, author J.D. Vance reflected on his tumultuous childhood growing up in a poor working class family. What initially read as a coming-of-age story resulted in an analysis of how the intrinsic fight to overcome a history of dysfunction and instability in an impoverished family transferred into adulthood.
Vance endured an endless cycle of stepfathers and suffered emotional abuse from his mother. His grandparents’ home was his safe haven from his mother’s bouts of violent rage and drug abuse. Vance connected his chaotic background to the culture of the Appalachian community. Many of them portray themselves as victims of the government, they choose not to work or attend college, and they have acquired drug and alcohol addictions. He implied that this illogical behavior gradually creates a domino effect by extending to future generations.
Despite his hurdles, Vance received a law degree from Yale University. He challenged school officials and the government to bridge the gap between low-income first generation students and higher education opportunities, and to create policies that assist children who come from poor working class families.
One of Vance’s underlying motivations behind this book was to encourage education reform as it pertains to students from underprivileged upbringings. “In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school’s freshmen won’t make it to graduation. Most won’t graduate from college” (p. 56). He also identified himself as a first generation college student, and he mentioned “none of [his] high school classmates attended an Ivy League school” (p. 191). Based on Vance’s descriptions of rural Appalachia’s low performing schools, parents who do not emphasize the importance of education, and the families that maintain a debilitated household, his intention to ignite a change in policy shifted from a spoken desire to an urgent appeal for this demographic.
Vance proved that there currently exists a disconnect between the relationships of school officials and students in the lower income bracket. His professor suggested that students from non-prestigious state schools should not apply to Yale Law School. Additionally, Vance detailed awkward encounters with interviewers including his lack of knowledge on how to answer questions about pay. He even described his confusion over the basic essentials of professional adult wardrobe and how to complete cut-and-dried financial aid applications. What makes Vance’s Yale Law School background even more compelling is that he felt foreign in an environment where his racial demographic is most prominent.
Vance’s heart-wrenching case proves that there exists a need for improved school support and resources from academic advisors to help students from low-income backgrounds. The inconsistency lies in the limitless financial aid opportunities that the government offers this demographic, yet the lack of personal encouragement and advising that they receive at school appears minor. His story is likely one of many tales of a first-generation college student attempting to create a successful academic career for himself with barriers blocking his journey. Vance was blunt and unapologetic in his call for better services for low income students at the higher education level, and his reasoning is valid. This at-risk group requires critical attention to help them feel embraced and encompassed in the university environment. The details he provided are painful at times to read, but necessary towards the theme of this book.
Overall, Hillbilly Elegy was a cautionary tale to education reformers. Vance spoke volumes about misconceptions of White Americans, and revealed unknown comparisons between the cultures of poor Appalachia and minorities. The reader can easily sympathize with his struggles, celebrate his successes, and want to advocate for change. Lawmakers and university officials should not only read this book, but study it extensively.