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Winner, 2017 APA Audie Awards - Nonfiction
From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America's white working class.
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis - that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over 40 years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.'s grandparents were "dirt poor and in love" and moved north from Kentucky's Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance's grandparents, his aunt, his uncle, his sister, and most of all his mother struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.
A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.
Would you listen to Hillbilly Elegy again? Why?
Yes. I loved the stories that the author shared. Some were colorful and quaint, others were dark, sad, and disturbing. But a life lived, examined, and improved upon--that is irresistible to me.
What other book might you compare Hillbilly Elegy to and why?
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.
Have you listened to any of J. D. Vance’s other performances before? How does this one compare?
I doubt if J.D. Vance has recorded other performances. One important thing I must point out: a few reveiwers noted that the author/narrator spoke too quickly. I had the opposite reaction. Finally, a narrator who moved along at a decent pace, and who was not more interested in emoting and acting than he was in getting on with the story! This is one of the few author-narrated audio books that I have really enjoyed. Another reviewer made negative comments re the off-colored language used by some of the people in J.D. Vance's autobiography. Sorry, but that's how those individuals expressed themselves. The author wasn't indulging in gratuitous or excessive cursing. What was he supposed to do--censor genuine, pithy remarks and change them to "Gosh darn" or "Gee whiz"? Time to grow up, readers!
Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?
I felt very sad, reading how tough life has been and continues to be for one seldom noticed group of people, those of Scotch-Irish ancestry who proudly call themselves hillbillies. This isn't a group of people who suffer from lack of outside intervention, which they resent and resist, often rightly so. The tragedy is their assumption that their fates are sealed, that life will always be tough, that there is no future outside poverty and drugs and violent upholding of cultural codes. The author was blessed with some caring relatives and friends, who helped him cope with the effects of his cultural inheritance and his mother's substance addictions. The author remade himself through a stint in the Marines, then graduated from college and law school. Yet the effects of his hillbilly upbringing remain and require ongoing understanding, acceptance and modification. I'd like to meet J.D. Vance. He sounds like a remarkable man. Somehow, by his own transformation, he is uniting the best of both the hillbilly culture and modern mores and behaviors.
Any additional comments?
I worked as a nurse for decades. I took care of hundreds of people who had physical problems resulting from mental and emotional issues, often caused by unfortunate childhood experiences. Those who took responsibility for their own condition and fate did well. Those who wallowed in self pity, and who blamed others--family, school, law enforcement, the government--for their problems, never improved. Self pity and blaming others is a trap. Giving in to those two negatives is like crawling into a cave and rolling a stone across the entrance, so that no light can enter. Like the case of J.D. Vance, the only way to a happy, productive life is to accept and understand one's past, work hard in the present, and make positive plans for the future. And the key to all that is to recognize one's own worth. It's hard to feel worthy of a good life, unless we receive enough affection and encouragement along the way. I hope the hillbillies of this world, and all groups and individuals who lack good parents and adequate food, clothing and education, find what they need in other positive forms, like grandparents, teachers and good friends. There is always hope. Sometimes, we have to work hard to find hope. But it's there.
221 of 233 people found this review helpful
I was raised lower middle class. Not with the violence portrayed in the book but with the values and the incentive for a better life. I'm now a successful dentist. I wish that there was a version without the cussing and swearing for my grandkids to listen to. I'm in a very low socioeconomic community and understand the plight of many of my patients. I've shared the book with most of my 'reader" patients. And will continue to. But always with the caveat of the language. I can't share with most of my dental colleagues about my bootstrap early existence because they won't understand. But I can relate to my welfare patients and give back when I can.
223 of 247 people found this review helpful
Vance's ability to be truthful to his life story and tell it through his fears is remarkable. As a Black Appalachian who is also a social worker and educator trying to help others recognize the humanity in so classified difficult youth, I appreciate the read. But even more importantly I am hopeful that others will pause as they read to take stock in their surroundings - to offer positive words, random actions of kindness, and moments of encouragement to some child, youth, or first generation college student because to alter one's path takes many people along the way. It is not just natural "smarts" or opportunity as many think, it is all the implicit rules of engagement that we never even think about that makes a difference. And as Vance also illustrates even well into adulthood there is much unspoken assistance needed. Great read! Thanks for sharing so freely of yourself.
61 of 68 people found this review helpful
Wikipedia defines elegy as, "In English literature, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead." Although this book is not a poem, it does involve serious reflection and it is a tribute to JD Vance's now dead hillbilly grandmother (mawmaw). It is also much, much more. Hillbilly Elegy is a touching true story of life growing up in the lower middle class communities of the mountains of southeastern Ohio and eastern Kentucky and escaping that area and the often destructive culture of drugs, alcohol, violence, early marriage and parenthood, and divorce. It is also a story of luck, good fortune, and personal strength that allowed a poor student not only escape but graduate from Yale law school.
Vance says that he is 'the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the world", a title I often claim myself. He deserves it more! I'm 42 years older than him and was born into the equivalent culture of the time in the rural US south. But I was born early enough not to experience the further degradation of the culture that came with drugs, family breakdown, and the availability of government money that stifles the desire to escape by moving people from being in genuine poverty to being lower middle class.
The individual stories of Vance's mom, sister, pawpaw, and others, but especially of his grandmother who raised him are often frightening and just as often heart warming. Vance paints a vivid portrait of a time and a place that is depressing and yet typical of how people there live. As he says, most people in the US look dawn at the people trapped, often by their own choices, in an environment where the jobs are gone but the inducements to try to escape are no longer present.
Vance does an excellent job of narrating his own book. Another narrator could no have reflected the emotion as well as he. This is a must listen audiobook.
113 of 127 people found this review helpful
I was bewildered when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, but not completely surprised. I'm a veteran and a good number of my old Army buds vocally supported Mr. Trump - but even then, it wasn't half of of my current and former service member pals. FBI Director James Comey's pre-election machinations with Hillary R. Clinton's emails certainly presaged the results - but not the wide swath of red dividing the country, with only a thin veneer of blue that cracked so quickly.
Other than duty stations in the Army, I've lived my entire life in indigo blue states. As a decades long California transplant, I've got a deep understanding of Mexican culture and traditions. However, I was completely and embarrassingly clueless about a lot of my country, especially a hillbilly culture of 25 million people in the Appalachians.
After the political upset, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times - maybe all three? - talked about J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis" (June 28, 2016) as a way to help understand the America that elected Trump. It's no sociological study, but it certainly gives perspective and it's a good way to start.
"Hillbilly Elegy" is a memoir, the story of a young man who had an upbringing so rough he could have ended up drug addled and dead at a young age. Vance struggled through high school and an uncountable number of temporary fathers. An enlistment in the Marines started a turn around that lead to Yale Law School and then prestigious jobs at white shoe firms that never even crossed the mind of street lawyers like me . Vance believes the presence of strong and loving family members, especially his grandparents and sympathetic mentors made the difference. It's hard to argue, but Vance undervalues his shrewd intellect and a presence that is, on Audible at least, commanding.
Vance's description of the hardscrabble Appalachians and the Ohio rust belt he grew up in; the murderously fierce Scots loyalty that shaped him, his family and his world, fueling and altering recent and ancient history; and the crushing poverty of both places were rocket fuel that drove him but immolated so many more on the launch pad. Vance's memoir is unpitying, but not unsparing . I would guess things were very much worse than he described - maybe not for him, but for his neighbors.
Vance himself called the 2016 Presidential election wrong, assuming the common belief that Clinton would win, "Life Outside the Liberal Bubble" New York Times Opinion page, November 9, 2016. "I thought I was above this divide, and I looked down on the coastal elites for living in their bubble. But I was wrong . . . This election has revealed, above all, that Trump and Clinton voters occupy two separate countries."
If Vance, with his personal experience and far superior education got it wrong, I don't feel quite so stupid. Still uneducated, though. So I'll read more, and maybe I'll find the time to start section hiking the Appalachian Trail next year.
Vance did the narration - and, wow. If that New York Times contributor/best selling author/Yale educated lawyer thing doesn't work out for him, he's got a fall back career as an Audible narrator.
The title of the review is a quote from the book.
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290 of 330 people found this review helpful
Absolutely exquisite summary of the plights of America's poor working class. I found myself recalling my own family stories, identifying in places & thanking God I had no connection to JD's experiences in others. This is a must-read for high school juniors as many many tips about making a life that's livable not just endurable are given without judgement for lack of knowledge. Devoured this book in 2-3 days. There is something here for all of us.
56 of 65 people found this review helpful
Thank you so much for your insights on so many truths. You have helped me understand why my two sons are pushing me away. Even though I didn't have the issue of addiction like your Mom, I did have quite a few different relationships with men after being widowed. Add to that my terrible temper, which I have finally gotten control of. Now I understand how they must have suffered. I only pray that one day they can forgive me and we can build some sort of relationship.
70 of 82 people found this review helpful
“One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.”
― J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
The writing and conclusions of this book are probably a 3-star, but emotionally this is a 5-star book for me (thus my 4-stars). J.D. Vance is my father. Reading his memoir is like reading a story about my dad. My dad, like Vance, grew up in a family with a lot of dysfunction. Neither of my dad's parent's graduated from high-school. He wasn't a hillbilly, per se, but he was born in a small dry-farm community in the mountains of Southern Idaho. Poor. And he wanted the hell out. He didn't get good grades, but a stint in the Navy and marriage to my mom provided the stability and the perspective that allowed my dad to climb and climb he did. The GI-bill and my dad's grit enabled my dad to eventually graduate with honors from UC Davis' Veterinary school.
His work ethic still is a thing of wonder to my brothers and sister. He is intimidating. He, by force of will, natural intelligence, etc. climbed (always with the assistance of my mom) up several economic and social rungs. His effort provided middle class, and eventually upper-middle class opportunities for his children. I will have to travel to the moon, I feel, to maintain the same trajectory he set.
Vance's story about growing up a hillbilly in Kentucky and Ohio resembles not just my dad but many people I know from many cultures, races, and backgrounds. The positive of this book is Vance's lack of meanness married to his willingness to criticize. That is a fine line, but I think Vance is right. There is no magic bullet, but there are several things that need to come together to help address some of the cultural, economic, and societal challenges facing not just poor whites in Appalachia, but inner-city poor minorities, Native American poor, etc..
Vance and Vance's publishers also benefited from timing. His book was published during the Trump movement of 2016 and 2017 (and yes, we are still trying to understand all of that). Vance seemed to offer SOME explanation why poor whites in Appalachia and the Rust Belt seemed to vote against their interest for a demagogue and pseudo-populist. Vance seemed available with at least SOME answers.
We are a nation that is seeing a huge chasm open up between the haves and the have-nots. There aren't enough bridges, and not enough shepherds helping those on the edge across. I remember thinking about this very issue years ago. It was one area where I felt I needed to take a personal stake in someone else's development and progression. It is hard to see neighbors struggle with debt, single mother's barely keeping their heads above water, addiction, and hardest of all despair. Despair. I don't want to wait until government addresses the income gap. I think, because of the tremendous gift I've been given and the resources attached to that -- that I have a moral responsibility to pass that gift on. My kids will get it naturally enough. They will have a stable home (mostly), education, too much food and exposure to opportunities that will allow them to maneuver through the hurdles and the traps of the modern economy and upper-middle-class culture. What I need to do, because I have been blessed, is find a way to extend this opportunity to more. I really think -- and like Vance I don't have all the answers -- my way is person-to-person. Mentoring. Looking for an opportunity to take a kid who, given the opportunities I was BORN with, could excel me -- and helping her or him out. I've done this a couple times and it is miraculous and I think going forward necessary. Both for the economic survival for our nation, but also for our nation's soul.
39 of 46 people found this review helpful
In a recent NY Times column, conservative intellectual David Brooks recommended this book as offering insight into a mystery of recent political trends in the United States (and, to an extent, in other parts of the Western world). Why do so many angry, disaffected, lower-to-middle class white people vote in a seemingly irrational manner that often appears even to be against their own self-interest?
J.D. Vance is an ivy league-educated young lawyer with a particularly good background for exploring the anger and rage that has led to such upheaval in recent elections. He was born in Eastern Kentucky's hill country and then moved with his family to the industrial rust belt of the midwest.
In claiming this "hillbilly" background, Vance attempts to make sense of (if not excuses for) a culture that has lost its way and is feeling left out of what used to be seen as the American birthright of optimism and high expectations for the future.
Vance's family story is at times hilarious, often appalling, and ultimately heartbreaking. His affection for his fiercely loyal but very flawed mother, grandparents (you will never forget "Mamaw" and "Papaw"!) and extended family is obvious and to be commended. Yet his personal success and years away from that culture give him a clear view of the toll that geographic displacement, economic failure, lack of education, and drugs have taken on an increasingly helpless and hopeless portion of the population.
As a technologically advanced nation, we have to find a way to reach out to and bring along those who are feeling disaffected. Everyone agrees on that. "Hillbilly Elegy" doesn't tell us how to accomplish this task, but it gives us a much-needed glimpse inside the problem.
These are real people with a rich history in this country - people of value and sensibility - and they need help. Trying to understand them is the very least we can do, and J.D. Vance helps us get there.
80 of 96 people found this review helpful
Not having Appalachian heritage but growing up in Appalachian Ohio this book articulated so many patterns I've seen in my own communities. While the book does not offer solutions for the problems that face these communities, it names them and that is an important first step for progress. The book also gives a face to the working class and humanizes folks who have been "othered" for far too long.
8 of 9 people found this review helpful