Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A review

I have resisted reading this book. It wasn't really hard. I don't usually read memoirs or biographies, so I wasn't particularly tempted. Plus, I wrote my own (metaphorical) hillbilly elegy long ago and wasn't really interested in reading somebody else's.

Yes, I grew up as a hillbilly, too. But my "hills" were several hundred miles south of the ones in Kentucky/Ohio that J.D. Vance called home. My heritage, though, is much the same Scots-Irish ancestry and culture as his.

Moreover, the rural community where I grew up was poor as Vance says his was. However, based on his descriptions of his family's holdings and income, they would likely have been considered middle-class where I lived. But perhaps poverty, at least to some extent, is in the eye of the beholder or in the perception of the one who experiences it.

At any rate, Vance's memoir of himself and his family and the poverty they experienced and how they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps stayed on the best-seller list month after month after month, taunting me it seemed. And finally, after recently reading and enjoying Tara Westover's memoir, Educated, I felt that perhaps I was ready for another. So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy.

What I found was a mesmerizing story of what appeared on the outside to be a dysfunctional family that still managed to function and care for its members on some level. The memoir part of Vance's tale was compelling, particularly his portraits of the grandparents who were the center of the family and who were his anchor and salvation as his mother descended into drug addiction and went through a long series of thoroughly hapless men, only one or two of whom actually took an interest in and tried to relate to her two children. His father had long since been absent.

His family, including his grandparents, were violent; their main claim to fame and a source of pride was their connection to the famous Hatfields of the Hatfield and McCoy Feud. Both the grandparents carried guns and Vance repeatedly refers to his grandmother, the chief influence in his life, as a pistol-packing lunatic who promised to kill anyone who dared harm him. He believed her and loved her for it. 

This portrait of a family and its rise out of poverty is paired with a good bit of right-wing political polemic which I found less mesmerizing. He writes about the country's descent into what he sees as a nanny state, with generous government benefits that suck all of the initiative from their recipients. While his family is hard-working and always striving to better themselves, he sees his neighbors as lazy and shiftless. He complains about "welfare queens" and food stamp recipients shopping at the grocery store, walking through the check-out line while talking on their expensive cell phones and paying for their T-bone steaks with food stamps. Alternatively, he complains of food stamp recipients buying nothing but sugary drinks and snacks with their benefits. He is very condescending toward these people who somehow missed the boat when the Scots-Irish stubborn pride was being distributed. He never considers that their challenges might even be greater than his and that they, too, are trying to better themselves and the lives of their children. Empathy seems a concept foreign to him. 

Having worked as a social worker and supervisor of social work for more than thirty years, I have quite another view of the poor. Sure, there are those that are lazy and lack initiative, but most are struggling for a better life. Many work two and even three jobs to try to support their families. If they receive government benefits, they are a supplement to their own efforts.

In describing his hard work to achieve his middle-class status, Vance elides over the part that government benefits played in his own rise; namely, his four years as a Marine gave him discipline and leadership skills and his service subsequently helped to pay for his education. 

In addition, he got lucky with his friends and his contacts who helped him along the way. Not everyone manages to have such luck.

This book came out in the middle of the presidential election year of 2016 and it fed into the stereotypes propounded by one of those campaigns - the undeserving poor who constantly make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty. It's wasteful and useless to spend taxpayer money on them. Conservatives ate it up.

In an afterword written later, Vance wants us to know that although he admired some things about the Republican presidential candidate such as his "outsider" status and his scorn for the "elites" (This from a graduate of Yale Law School!), he did not vote for him. No, he kept his honor and voted for the third party candidate.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Comments

  1. Excellent review! At least this book gives us lots to ponder and you found points I missed, maybe because I grew up privileged but with liberal parents. Our Bookie Babes discussion a couple months ago brought up even more pondering. And just think, you have certainly made your memoir quota for the year!

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  2. I've seen both sides of poverty: the one that he describes of food stamps beneficiaries spending on big ticket items while wearing Nikes and expensive attire, and the ones you describe, trying to scrape by while working several jobs without making actual progress, so I see the merits of both arguments. I don't think he is less empathetic towards the poor because he sees it differently. It's true that opportunity plays a larger than life role in bettering the poor. I know because I was one of them. I came to this country as an immigrant with nothing except the few clothes I carried. I was lucky to attend schools, first a community college then Ivy League, because education is viewed as an asset in my family and where I come from. I was lucky to have my parents' support along the way but there were very hard times and we didn't always have state aid along the way. From my experience I can say that luck and effort count big time. I've seen the poor in this country shun education whether because they don't know there are plenty of resources available to students who perform well and come from disadvantaged backgrounds, or because they don't consider education a means to invest in the future. I think the government/state agencies employ more resources in trying to aid the poor through a system that doesn't guarantee that they will leave it, instead of emphasizing the importance of education and facilitating information that guarantee the poor make better decisions for their future and that of their children. He may have graduated from Yale Law but doesn't mean that "the poor" (a.k.a. the experiences that shaped him) has been taken out of him. I think both his point and yours are equally valid.

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    1. I really have no problem with the memoir part of his story, i.e., his family's background and story. I do have a problem with his judgmental attitude toward others who haven't been able to make that same transition. And, of course, I agree with you that the experiences which shape our lives are never taken out of us.

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    2. I identified well the part you didn't like but just consider that maybe he is the exception in the community where he comes from, which actually means his judgements are valid. It doesn't mean he changed doctrine because he is better off but because of what he's been through. Through your work you got to see the other side of the coin, but sure you recognize that the welfare system is severely flawed; some who need help are not able to get it because they don't make the cut, while those who qualify for aid are so poor that likely remain at the bottom of the socio-economic strata for the rest of their lives because there's no incentive towards bettering their lives.

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    3. Why would your think that those "at the bottom of the socio-economic strata" have "no incentive towards bettering their lives"?

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    4. Because the system is designed to help only as you remain extremely poor. If you want to keep getting aid you must remain at the bottom.

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    5. And why would you think that some people prefer to keep getting aid?

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  3. I don't read memoirs that much (I've run across a couple so poorly written I gave up on them despite lives that would have been worth reading about) but I've had these two (Educated and Hillbilly Elegy) on my "to read" list. I grew up in a New York City housing project but luck (and I think luck has a lot to do with it) put me in an era when education in NYC public schools was excellent, and New York City colleges (CUNY system) tuition for in-city residents was next to nothing. The people who came after me certainly didn't have these ways to break out.Thought provoking review.

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    1. My objection to memoirs is that, so often, they are self-serving and hardly objective. I found Vance's memoir of his family interesting, but I think some of the lessons that he took from his experiences are extremely judgmental of other people who had different experiences. Westover's memoir was engrossing, although I got very annoyed and impatient with her at times when she kept making the same mistakes over and over again. But then humans do, don't they?

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  4. Another very good memoir of the working poor is Heartland by Sarah Smarsh. I do not believe it got enough press. I can relate to it much more than I could to Educated.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Charlotte. I was not familiar with that book but I will certainly check it out.

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