Books, Review

Review: Hillbilly Elegy

My first comment on this book is about the price. For a book whose purported audience is the working and welfare poor from Appalachia, the price set at 15.99 for ebook is a slap in the face.

I don’t usually review a book on price, but in this rare case, it matters. JD Vance’s treatise, Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis, is supposed to be targeted at – indeed, he speaks directly to – the poorest people he knows. And then… he has little control over the pricing of this book. As you feel by the end that he had little control over some of the content in the book. He had to write it in a certain way, to validate his own internal narrative and win the support of the external proponents who would make sure the book was published. The book, the pricing, the way he approaches his family and his rise out of poverty – it’s an interesting dichotomy. 

But first, let me back off and approach this from why I chose to invest in this book and read it. I married a man whose background reaches into the furthest hollows of Kentucky, and who told me that his family was one of the first twelve to settle in Kentucky. His father and I – the man I’d been gently warned would probably glare at me and treat me like he wanted me off his property – bonded over a conversation about shooting squirrels and gathering nuts and wild greens. He’d done it because it was that, or starve, when he was a boy. I’d done it because I was a contrary little twerp who read about it in a book. This nearly illiterate man – he’s brilliant, but school wasn’t a priority when it’s get a job or the whole family doesn’t eat – and I hit it off nearly from the start.

Like the Vance family, the First Reader’s folks came from Kentucky to Ohio for work. It’s been generations since the flight from the poor state to the possibilities in Ohio’s industry began, because we figure that the First Reader came to OH as a young boy at least 20 years before Vance and his family. There are similarities in their stories, and there are deep differences. As the First Reader read Vance’s tale, he commented that Vance doesn’t seem to have experienced the discrimination that he did. When I met him, the FR’s accent was neutral Midwestern. But when he was 6, in first grade and newly living in Ohio, his teacher hated him and mistreated him – because of his thick Kentuckian accent. The Kentucky immigrants were hated and feared by the Ohioans. It was bad enough that the FR’s family pulled him out of school and sent him back to Kentucky and his grandparents for a while. His parents worked in Ohio on a family farm, in factories, in shops – his mother had to endure true sexual harassment that was the real reason for the laws against it now. We’re not talking about ‘he made eye contact with me and smiled’ or ‘the maintenance man talked to me and he sounded intelligent!’ and yes, both of those are real examples that led to warnings against men in the last decade. She didn’t consider quitting work when her boss literally chased her around his office trying to steal favors from her. She needed the money, so she ducked him, and eventually he stopped trying to get at her (there’s a story there, but it’s not mine to tell).

Vance’s family is, you see from the very beginning, deeply dysfunctional. The FR had the blessing of having two parents who loved their kids, and each other, and who both worked their fingers to the bone to raise their family up out of poverty to middle class, where they are now – both the parents and sons. Vance’s family came to OH for money, but didn’t find it. Or if they did, they squandered it on alcohol and drugs. Vance and his family spiraled downward as Middletown, OH, did.

I know Middletown well, having attended University partly in that small city, and I do my grocery shopping there weekly. It’s the same town that recently proposed a desperate last-ditch effort to straighten up some of their addicts, as they reel from dealing with heroin addicts and overdoses. I was taught by a former police chief, and assistant prosecutor, and through their stories, saw more of the city than I would have dreamed. In my first year at the University, I lost a classmate to the drug. A bright young lady, only 18, snuffed out by the same drive that leads so many to wander downtown dazed and confused. There is no turning back for the rusting shell of what was a thriving steel-driven city.

Vance discusses in detail what happened – and is happening – to Middletown, as a case study of what is happening all through the Rust Belt and Appalachia. There are times I thoroughly agree with him. And then there are times I wince as he inserts political statements that ring false. I have to wonder if his education and mentors made him feel he had to say those things if this book was to have a chance of being published.

You see, the First Reader and Vance share trajectories up to a certain place. They both immigrated to OH from KY early in life with parents who were poor. They both made it through high school, and went off to the military. But Vance returned, encouraged to take advantage of the GI Bill to further his education – and my husband came back to hardscrabble work, fiercely independent, and entirely opposed to trying to put up with the fluff and nonsense he saw being pushed in the colleges at the time. Vance found people who wanted to help a redneck hillbilly boy become a Pygmalion tale, and thus he wound up at Yale.

Vance’s position, throughout the book, is that if the working poor – like his family, like himself, like my husband and his family – choose to strive toward success, they can achieve it. His stance is that personal responsibility, rather than placing the blame on the government (while paradoxically keeping a hand out for largesse from that gov’t), is the only way they will ever be able to walk on their own two feet and make a better life. I don’t disagree with him. Where I do disagree is that I see the government’s interferences in the area, and how they tend to either cut attempts to revitalize off at the knees, or to create programs that artificially support families while make it very difficult for them to escape from that ‘support.’ But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

As for the book? Should you read it? Yes. It is very well-written, thought provoking, and deeply real. After finishing it, the First Reader turned to me and said that based on the description, he knew where the hotel was that Vance’s addict mother was living. He pointed it out to me a few days later as we drove by it. We live in Vance’s setting. It’s worth reading. It’s not worth buying. Check it out from the library.

5 thoughts on “Review: Hillbilly Elegy

  1. My sister relayed to me the common snark about dropping your shoes down to those heading north on the lower deck of the bridge. The basis for that is still all to true, but so many people only see “poor” people as those living in projects, with video games and flat screen TVs, and have no idea about the standard of living of the Appalachian people.

  2. I bought the book when it was a Kindle Daily Deal (as I often do). It was a poignant read, and I highly recommend it—but I didn’t get the impression that the intended readership were the working poor etc. from Kentucky. It reads much more like ‘stop looking down on these people — let me tell you what they/we are about’.

  3. I was thinking of getting this but totally balked at the ebook price. Thanks for helping me decide! I think I’ll put it back on my wishlist and wait for it to go down in price.

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