Immediately after Donald’s Trump electoral victory lists began to appear of books to read if one wanted to understand just how such an unlikely candidate was able to capture the White House. Over the next year or so one of those books, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance generated a lot of buzz. After several people recommended it to me I added Hillbilly Elegy to my list of books to read, making a mental note to do so should I stumble across an available copy at my public library. As luck might have it, while exploring the shelves one Saturday morning I found not one but three available copies. Figuring this was the perfect time to give Vance’s book a chance I grabbed one. I’m happy to say Hillbilly Elegy is worthy of all the praise.
In his 2016 memoir Vance recalls his life, starting with troubled childhood in Ohio being raised by his alcohol and drug abusing train wreck of a mother. (Technically, Vance isn’t from Appalachia but descended from relatives who hail from there and later migrated to the Rustbelt of Ohio where he grew up.) After being being tossed back and forth between grandparents, relatives, step parents and the like after graduating from high school Vance joined the Marines. Despite being deployed to Iraq serving in the Marines was probably the best thing that could have happened to him. He ate a healthy diet, got plenty of exercise and as a result lost a ton of weight. Most importantly, the discipline of military life instilled in him a much-needed sense of purpose and self-confidence. After leaving the Marines he earned a bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University and later a law degree from Yale. Considering Vance’s humble roots one marvels at what he’s accomplished.
In Hillbilly Elegy Vance takes a critical view of the working class whites he encountered during his childhood and young adulthood, chiding them for their poor work ethic, tendency to abuse alcohol and drugs, inability to resolve conflicts peacefully without violence or verbal abuse abuse and their reluctance to relocate from areas with high unemployment and rampant poverty to places with better employment prospects. Ironically, I found echoes of these sentiments in Debra Dickerson’s 2004 book The End of Blackness, where, as an African-American writer attempting to tackle the many negative challenges affecting the black community sees the solution in greater self-reliance and adoption of more beneficial social behaviors.
In side note, in his memoir Vance mentions two mentors having a positive impact on him: Yale law professor Amy Chua and political commentator David Frum. Last December I reviewed Chua’s 2007 book Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall and in late 2016 I featured her 2014 book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Over a decade ago, back in my pre-Wordpress days blogging on Vox I reviewed Frum’s 2007 book Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.
Not only did Hillbilly Elegy measure up to all the hype I enjoyed the heck out of it, finding it insightful and compelling. There’s a good chance it will make my Favorite Nonfiction list come the end of the year.