Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir combined with frequent statistical observations about life in Appalachia. The result is a thoughtful insight on an often forgotten segment of American society. Published prior to the November, 2016 presidential elections, the popularity of the book peaked when this ‘forgotten segment’ gained attention by voting to put the current President in office.
I remember when Jack Kennedy ran for the presidency. I was just a kid, but recall his tours of Appalachia where he spoke of the government’s obligation to the people who lived there in poverty. Later, Lyndon Johnson carried that effort forward with The War on Poverty. It seems no one talks about the people in those hills much anymore.
It’s easy to forget these people when so many major problems reside in the cities -- poverty, crime, drugs, slums, are just a few examples. While much focus remains on the urban minority communities, it is interesting to note that most food stamp recipients and drug addicts are white.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance writes a personal story of life with his family in the hills of Kentucky. He traces the history of migration over the border from Kentucky to Ohio for factory jobs and the ultimate demise of those jobs in modern times. Vance explores the inner mind of the hillbillies who often blame their lot on others, never themselves.
He is one of the few that broke the cycle of poverty by getting a good education and a law degree from Yale. His message is clear, however: in spite of a drug addict mother who had a series of men in her life with little time for good mothering, his escape from poverty came from the undying support of a tough grandmother and strong grandfather.
He suggests that without some source of support and with a willingness to stop blaming others, the cycle of poverty will never be broken from the outside. I recommend the book as a depiction of one man’s personal story, but question what type of book it wanted to be. It is solid as a memoir, but somewhat uneven as a case study of the people in Appalachia.
In spite of its unevenness, I recommend it. Particularly during these times, it is an important story to know.