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: Luis Juarez
Doctorate of Education candidate
University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
In a thorough and revealing memoir, J.D. Vance (2016) writes about the life and culture of people from Jackson, Kentucky, known as “hillbillies” from Appalachia. Through his childhood experiences of living as a “hillbilly”, or “poor people” (p.17), as he honestly compares, Vance (2016) provides insights of why this community find themselves in poverty with no liable solution to change the direction of their destiny.
The author narrates the emotional and physical abuse he experienced from his upbringing. His mother, a drug addict couldn’t keep a job due to failing drug tests. Vance concluded that this instability was common in most hillbilly homes. Higher education on the other hand was uncommon for hillbillies to say the least. Making good grades and planning for college was not a priority in the home of Vance. In his own words, “we didn’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents” (p.146). By telling his mother’s story who was a salutatorian in high school that surrendered her college plans after becoming pregnant with his sister, Vance (2016) describes a vicious cycle of complacency and mediocrity when addressing his concern for his people. Fortunately for Vance (2016), his grandmother provided a unique and unlikely encouragement for him to attend college.
Vance (2016) makes a case throughout his book of the impact anti poverty government programs have on the white-working class. He explains that government programs such as welfare and food stamps encourage a lack of participation in the workforce. While these programs are helpful to some, Vance (2016) witnessed many people cheat the system and rather than to look for jobs and opportunities, they are comfortable living off the government.
The author’s personal experience gives him the ability to masterfully show the sociological, political and economical reality of the so called “hillbilly’ community. A hillbilly from Middletown, OH, Vance (2016) is a graduate from Yale Law School. He uses his education as a lawyer to present a case with solid arguments about his premise that hillbillies are a community in a decaying culture. Throughout the book, Vance (2016) makes it clear to readers that hillbillies do not value education. He describes the hillbilly community as non-educated, precisely because of the excessive high school drop out rate.
In a dramatic fashion, the author explains that this community has a low understanding of the importance of a healthy family system. The estranged relationship with his mother and the common drug and domestic abuse among hillbilly homes, allows him to make a valid case for this argument. Furthermore, he is right to point out that the government disables hillbillies from participating in the workforce through anti poverty government programs.
One of the strengths of Hillbilly Elegy is the methods used to support the author’s point. By observing his own life and the hillbilly community, Vance (2016) is able to capture the reader’s attention through a vivid and descriptive narrative. His use of swearing throughout the book adds a touch of genuineness to his memoir. His dramatic experiences of abuse allow readers to visualize the profound crisis in hillbilly homes. Using a very graphic picture, Vance tells the time when his grandmother poured gasoline on her husband in an attempt to burn him for coming home drunk.
The veracity of the author’s evidence about the decomposition of the hillbilly community is supported by his own undeniable personal experience, which is the dominant piece of the entire elegy; his mother’s promiscuous life-style, his grandmother’s dualistic behavior, and statistics from recognized government and independent agencies. Up until he graduated high school, Vance (2016) counted about 11 husbands and boyfriends of his mother. His grandmother, provided encouragement for him to get educated, but also exemplified a bad approach to resolving problems through violence. She would often threaten people at gunpoint when things didn’t go her way. All this evidence used by the author leads the reader to agree with the reality of the social problems this community faces and the responsibility of society in general.
Hillbilly Elegy uncovers the raw reality of this community that has become stagnant and lives in complete opposite of what Hollywood shows America to be. Although government anti poverty programs affect this community, they can not be held solely responsible for their precarious situation. It is obvious that the author doesn’t provide all the answers to alleviate the life-style of this community, but with all the evidence presented, examples, and ultimately, with his own life, he proves that the answer is within the community itself. Hillbilly Elegy opened a conversation about the social, political, educational and economical contemporary situation, not just for the hillbilly community, but for the nation as a whole.
Vance, J. D. (2016). Hillbilly elegy. S.I.: William Collins.