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

I’m not a big fan of nonfiction unless it is a topic about which I have a great interest. Life in the hills of Appalachia is a topic I find entirely compelling. It’s why I am such a fan of fiction – particularly mysteries – that take place in the area designated Appalachia.

Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir written by J.D. Vance, therefore captured my attention despite it being a memoir. I very often find memoirs self-serving and uninteresting. Hillbilly Elegy caught my attention from the get-go, and kept it throughout the book. Well, almost. Even the most interesting memoirs can get tedious when the author is talking about certain points in his or her life.

Mr. Vance is a former Marine who graduated from Yale Law School despite his difficult childhood. He uses the word hillbilly, a term with which I find myself somewhat uncomfortable, despite the fact that I occasionally use it to deprecate myself as part of my humor. I guess that’s why its serious use makes me squirm a bit. Still, he uses it to describe himself and his family.

Vance’s grandparents moved from Kentucky to Ohio when they were newly married. According to the author, a large number of Scotch/Irish Appalachians moved to the so-called Rust Belt following World War II in search of a better life where jobs were plentiful in the mining and manufacturing region. Unfortunately, the poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, and general dysfunction followed the immigrants. You can take the man (or woman) out of the violence but you can’t take……

The book is not really so much about so-called hillbillies as it is about white working class Americans and how our system has failed them. Vance was mostly parented by his grandmother and grandfather, who were not unblemished themselves, but at least were a constant in his life. His parents were unavailable to him. His mother, in particular, failed him because of ongoing drug addiction. Aunts, uncles, cousins all demonstrated violent behavior and depended on drugs and alcohol to get through their difficult days.

There has been much talk lately about the problem of drug abuse as well as how poorly working class Americans are faring, but Vance’s perspective is different from many as this was his real life, the background from which he came. Drug and alcohol abuse, and general violence, were part of his roots. He credits his grandparents for his success.

Vance’s talk about government’s failings might be anathema to some who believe government assistance is the best way to help fight poverty. But he makes so many good points that I found myself highlighting section after section of my book. And then, unfortunately, returning it to the library.

A very interesting read indeed.

Here is a link to the book.

2 thoughts on “Friday Book Whimsy: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

  1. Kris, this was such a poignant book for me. I was able to fully immerse myself in empathy for the journey he took. We are studying Trauma Informed Schools (well a small group of us is, because we are not allowed to add anything “new” to our school year, even if it will help). ANYway, I want this to be a book study at school because we know the story of many of our students — but we do not KNOW THE STORY. When Vance discusses learning how to manage himself, it is such skills that we have to teach students so that they are at the most human level ready to learn. We must be able to build relationships first with them, and then learning and rigor can come after. Sadly, in education, the rigor and the test scores are the focus when we KNOW we will not get to good scores if students do not even trust the people who are teaching them, the students with whom they are in class, and are ready physiologically to access their higher brain functions to learn. This is what we see every day at school, especially schools of generational poverty and high ACE’s for families and students. It should be required reading in every school in the nation and then we might turn things around for all students. It was interesting to me that you do not enjoy memoirs as they are not my thing either. Vance’s voice in writing and his story drew me in immediately — both for his voice and how I see his behaviors every day in my office — and when I am on the phone with the parents who are yelling at me because yelling = winning and they are wired so that every argument they MUST win for their survival depends upon it. I love how he wrote that absent specific events and people, he would have been f****d. I am trying to arrange for students those people whom they can trust and I hope that at some point the “powers” will understand that, absent relationships no rigor will matter because we are dealing with a large % of students whose “normal” is something which makes us weep.

    • Another reminder of the important role grandparents can play in a child’s life. Throwing government resources at the problem of poverty doesn’t seem to be working.

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