Review: Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

J.D. Vance

The book all your Brooklyn bearded buddies and khaki clad D.C. contacts were talking about. Billed as your guide (from a Yale Law grad no less!) to what the hell is happening in the white working class of the rust belt, this is much closer to the standard memoir of kid from rough neighborhood who makes it out through smarts and determination.

Still, it’s an interesting read.

Vance takes his story of growing up with a drug addicted mother, and a caring, but flawed, extended family, and tries to extrapolates some lessons as to why he succeeded where others failed.

His answers aren’t clear. Loving grandparents, luck, the military and the grit it instilled all play a role, but much of his success seems mysterious.

His critiques of the white working class however, are very clear. You’ve heard them before, but usually used to critique urban poor communities: culture of poverty, difficulty with sustained hard work, drugs abuse, lack of social capital. I’m not gonna lie, it’s refreshing to see the judgmental gaze placed on someone other than a single black mom in East New York. But it’s interesting to see that here the need for personally responsibility is placed in the context of collapsing industry, untreated drug addiction, and a fraying social safety net. While critiques the urban poor are often solely focused on their failings.

This dichotomy isn’t Vance’s fault per se. He isn’t writing about the urban poor – he’s writing about his family and friends. And while at times he can come off as a bit full of himself, he treats the people he writes about with real love and dignity. Its makes for an interesting, if not complete, investigation.


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  1. 2016: My Year In Books | Milo and the Calf

    […] Hillbilly Elegy: A Story of a Family and Culture in Crisis J.D. Vance – Recommended […]

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