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

Review by Heather Haunert

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance is a New York Times bestselling book that is soon to be a major motion picture. The book is an enthralling account of J.D. Vance’s hillbilly family and life from the hills and hollers of Jackson, Kentucky and their transition to Middletown, Ohio.

He begins with the history of the Vance family several branches back on the family tree weaving in his childhood and the importance of his hillbilly roots. The fantastic and sometimes blatantly rudely worded stories will resonate with many readers from the Midwest region of the United States. These accounts could easily be mine if only the names were changed. I found myself reminiscing and enjoying them even though some were terrible and tragic. They are the trials and tribulations of living in the rural Midwest. If they didn’t happen to you, then invariably they happened to someone you know.

J.D. is honest in his telling of some very painful truths wrapped intricately in the framework of the working class of the Midwest. His story continues as he grows up, primarily with his mamaw and papaw. His mother has many issues, with drugs definitely causing the biggest problem for her and her family. He makes an interesting point that to some may seem harsh: J.D. did not keep his distance from his mom because he didn’t care; he did it to survive. His stories of growing up with his sister cuts deep into those with a tender heart.

Knowing the importance of his grandparents’ influence on his life, once they both passed away in the book, the story lost its magic. The last part of the story shares J.D.’s experience in the military and then on to the Ivy League realm attending Yale Law School. It tends to get rather political, and that transition made it a lot less interesting to me than the storytelling nature of his younger years. It felt disheartening and depressing to the point that it became tough for me to read.

J.D. makes it a point to indicate multiple times that he is one of the lucky ones. He has worked hard to have a life of material comfort. He strongly believes that we have created these problems as a society, but need public policies in place to help make a difference. J.D. talks about ways he attempts to make a difference, but ultimately realizes the difficulty in completely ridding himself of old habits. As he states, above all else, he is still a hillbilly at heart.

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