Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

A sad song for the hillbilly. Vance shares his hard-knock story of growing up in southern Ohio among people who share and perpetuate an Appalachian culture. His is a story of teen pregnancy, broken families, substance abuse, violence and a perpetual cycle of poverty few have a chance to escape. Vance is one of the few who escapes, making his way to the Marines, the Ohio State University and Yale Law School.

As Vance traces his first thirty years of life  he makes interesting observations about his people, the education system, the church, and our political system. He doesn’t offer easy answers or solutions, because frankly there aren’t any.  He describes his high school as poor, yet notes there were teachers who cared and pushed him to do better. The missing element were examples of those who went on to college or successful careers.

The church he is exposed to tells him science is bad and that he should fear the world, but offers no tangible help, or hope, for his dysfunctional family life. People stand on the literal truth of the Bible, but few actually read the Scriptures.

Vance is self-aware enough to realize his family is different, something which is compounded when he makes his way to Yale. His stories of finding himself in situations with wealthy people are cringe worthy and sadly humorous. If there is one concrete solution Vance suggests it is that we need to find ways to bridge the economic segregation present in our society.

Some have suggested the book explains why poor whites voted for Trump, something it does but perhaps in a roundabout way. His people are quick to realize when they are being looked down upon, and resent being told what to eat, drink, and how to live. Towards the end of the book Vance chides his people, saying they need to move on from blaming Obama or Bush and take responsibility for their own failings. He criticizes “his people” in a way those from inside a culture can, pointing to the poor choices made by those who feel the system is and has been rigged against them. It is indeed a sad song for the hillbilly.

Review by M. M.

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