“Hillbilly Elegy”: A Timely and Important Memoir

I was born in West Virginia and so, by birth, I am an official hillbilly. Though I have lived in New England for almost 35 years, I cannot deny the strong soulful connection to the “wild and wonderful” land of West Virginia where much of my simple childhood was spent. In my college years, I once went spelunking in the mountains of West Virginia and after a day exploring deep in a cave of stalactites and stalagmites and winding knee-high rivers, we climbed to the top of an Appalachian hill in the dark and slept. When I awoke in the fresh mountain air, my eyes opened to a pastoral delight of beautiful rolling cow dotted hills. The hills and hollows of West Virginia truly are in my blood.

And so, last August when I spotted, prominently displayed in a bookshop in New York City, Hillbilly Elegy, my heart skipped a beat (how often does one come across the word “hillbilly”?). I knew I had to read it for the mere prospect of taking me back, with a strong sense of place, to the Appalachian hills where I came from.

Hillbilly elegy
West Virginia hillside, 2017

It was the alarming subtitle however, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which really made the reading of this book more urgent, as I knew for many years from visits and drives through this geographic area that all was not well and that there was much economic decline that had taken place in the past 40 years, and consequentially much chaos, turmoil and despair that the “forgotten people” of Appalachia were living in.

Hillbilly Elegy, written by J.D. Vance – a 32-year-old former Marine and Yale Law School graduate – would go on to become one of the most important books of 2016, as found in the reviews below, and hold the number two spot on the New York Times’ nonfiction best seller list for 33 weeks straight. A startling and poignant memoir from someone who grew up in Kentucky’s Appalachia region and the poor Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio, it tells the story of Vance’s unlikely escape from a world plagued by poverty, abuse, alcoholism, divorce and trauma – and provides a rare, probing glimpse into the personal and professional challenges of upward mobility.

hillbilly elegy quotes
Through the mountains of West Virginia, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy Reviews:
“A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author’s journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It’s also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view…” –Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom (and one of J.D. Vance’s professor at Yale who encouraged him to write this book)
“[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.” –David Brooks, New York Times
“…a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America….[Vance] offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it…” Wall Street Journal
“It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… [T]he most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance.” –Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Notable Quotes from Hillbilly Elegy:
hillbilly elegy reviews“Never be like these fucking losers who think the deck is stacked against them,’ my grandma often told me. ‘You can do anything you want to.'”
“Our elegy is a sociological one, yes, but it is also about psychology and community and culture and faith.”
“How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? “ …”Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”  “…you have to stop making excuses and take responsibility.”
“There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin – ‘black people,’ ‘Asians,’ ‘white privilege.’ Sometimes these broad categories are useful, but to understand my story, you have to delve into the details. I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition – their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, share-croppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and millworkers during more recent times….”
“The Scots-Irish are one of the most distinctive subgroups in America. As one observer noted, ‘In traveling across America, the Scots-Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition that’s occurred nearly everywhere else.’  This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits – an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country – but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.”
“Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
“The wealthy and the powerful aren’t just wealthy and powerful; they follow a different set of norms and mores. When you go from working-class to professional-class, almost everything about your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.  At no time was this more obvious than the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel.  In my youth, it was the height of fine dining – my grandma’s and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.”
“Mamaw and Papaw taught me that we live in the best and greatest country on earth. This fact gave meaning to my childhood. Whenever times were tough – when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth – I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to make the good choices that others hadn’t. When I think today about my life and how genuinely incredible it is – a gorgeous, kind, brilliant life partner; the financial security that I dreamed about as a child; great friends and exciting new experiences – I feel overwhelming appreciation for these United States.”
“Reams of social science attest to the positive effect of a loving and stable home. I could cite a dozen studies suggesting that Mamaw’s home offered me not just a short-term haven but also hope for a better life.  Entire volumes are devoted to the phenomenon of “resilient children” – kids who prosper despite an unstable home because they have the social support of a loving adult.”
“If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.”
“Despite the setbacks, both of my grandparents had an almost religious faith in hard work and the American Dream.”

Of interest:
Check out the recent article (3/22/17) in the Wall Street Journal, “‘Hillbilly Elegy’ Author J.D. Vance Moves to Ohio to Find Venture-Capital Deals
Watch J.D. Vance’s TED talk below:

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