First published in 2016
My rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Of It:
A brutally honest memoir about one man's journey from impoverished hillbilly Kentucky to Yale Law School -- and the lessons he learned in between about his Appalachian roots.
The Long Of It:
"Hillbilly Elegy" is a raw look at a culture many of us think of only in stereotypes, as well as a fascinating memoir of survival and success against the odds.
J.D. Vance's childhood was spent in rural Kentucky and a small town in Ohio made up mostly of former Kentuckians whose parents and grandparents headed there to work in the steel mill. J.D.'s mom had a slew of men in her life and a longtime struggle with addiction, so he was raised mostly by his tough-as-nails grandmother (who once set her passed-out husband on fire for coming home drunk one time too many). The outlook for a hillbilly child is pretty damn grim, but the right stars aligned and J.D. avoided the typical hillbilly fate of blue collar work (or living off government assistance with no plan to get a job) and was able to go to college at Ohio State and pursue his graduate degree at Yale Law School. He was the first person from his town to attend an Ivy League university.
Through the lens of a very different life, J.D. is able to look back at his upbringing and his culture with an honest, thoughtful and, ultimately, concerned eye. In many ways hillbillies seems stuck in the past (think blood feuds, family honor above all, extreme chauvinism), and when you add in substandard schools, poverty, spousal abuse, broken families, and drug and alcohol problems, it's no surprise they're feeling hopeless and angry about their circumstances. Vance is refreshingly straightforward about all of this -- as well as the fact that the people of Appalachia don't seem to know how or even want to change, and at the same time they seem to look everywhere but inward for someone to blame.
J.D.'s story is funny, inspiring, shocking, frustrating, sad and, above all, honest. It wasn't a perfect book, but I enjoyed the conversational writing style and the open look at J.D.'s journey, and I appreciated that J.D. offers, if not solutions, then at least a place to start helping hillbillies help themselves. The unvarnished look he gives readers of his crazy childhood and his struggling culture was absolutely fascinating and I learned so much. I wish the book had come out a year earlier when we were still living in Ohio. Middletown, where J.D. grew up, is not far at all from Dayton, where we were stationed, and I dealt with poor white folks on a daily basis at the library. I worked in a town called Fairborn, and we'd sometimes jokingly call it "Fairtucky." Turns out that was a way more accurate description than I realized, and J.D.'s story surely would've given me an extra dose of empathy.
I urge you to read "Hillbilly Elegy" -- at the very least, you'll get a riveting inside look at a culture likely quite different from your own and a courageous protagonist to cheer for.
P.S. Reading a good memoir is like sitting next to a person telling you his or her life story, and every time I read one I feel an insatiable urge to know what the people and places in the story look like (and in this case I just had to know if J.D. speaks with a Southern twang -- the answer is, surprisingly, no!). If you have the same curiosity as me, J.D. has posted a few family photos on his website here. (And trust me, you'll want to see the infamous Mamaw!)