At first glance, the story of the Vance family is one of indomitable hope and success against all odds, the American dream coming true for those who work hard enough for it. They lived poor but happy in the years after the Second World War, raising a working middle-class family with the son, J.D., eventually serving as a marine in Iraq and then graduating from Yale Law school. All the hallmarks of an uplifting American success story are there, and of course none can ultimately deny any of those achievements.
Unfortunately, as is the case for many people, beneath the surface the story of J.D. Vance’s family is one of dread, poverty, violence, abuse, alcoholism, trauma, drugs, and social rot. Like many other families you’ll find in the flyover states and forgotten corners of America, the Vances grew up in a strange, isolated and declining culture, one that is generally either satirized or ignored completely by the more fortunate. J.D. Had the fortune of breaking free from the vicious circle that claimed much of his family, and in Hillbilly Elegy he recounts his life from childhood to the day he broke free from it all.
A Slave to Misery
As you might imagine, this isn’t a book for the faint of heart, at times depicting realities that can be rather difficult to process. On the good side though, Vance doesn’t ever try to sensationalize any of his accounts and play with the reader’s emotions. Everything is delivered in a somewhat neutral and non-judgemental tone, akin to a doctor describing his patient’s condition. Though some would argue that shoving these ugly realities in our face is a bit over the top, I say it’s necessary for it is the only way we can have a chance of knowing the true struggles those people face.
Anyhow, Vance doesn’t do anything fancy in terms of storytelling, just going about things chronologically and as best as he could remember them. We learn a bit about his family history here and there, how his grandparents made a life for themselves after the war, moving from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in hopes of outrunning poverty. The author focuses a fair bit on the people around him and the (metaphorical) demons he observed within them.
For instance, we see how his mother jumped from one boyfriend to the next while always struggling with a drug addiction, or how his grandparents relentlessly dished out abuse to seemingly anything and anyone. At the same time, the author shares the thoughts he remembers having as a child in those moments, always maintaining that objective and professional tone.
What J. D. Vance Strives to Accomplish
It may be labelled as a memoir, Hillbilly Elegy is a whole lot more than mere re-telling of the author’s early life. Vance also uses the opportunity to conduct a profound investigation of the culture he is a product of. He discusses a number of factors that he believes perpetuate the misery seen in the Rust Belt, starting with the Appalachian values he was raised with, promoting honor and loyalty but also violence and verbal abuse. He examines the people he grew up with, noting that abusive interactions were the only ones they had ever known. He also looks into the lack of tightly-knit communities, a huge factor that helps first-generation immigrants thrive and get out of poverty. Ultimately, he makes the argument that there is an internal problem that cannot be resolved by the government, stemming from tribalism, a mistrust of outsiders and so-called “elites”, a propensity for violence and irresponsibility, damnable work ethics, and a strong “us vs. them” mentality. He concludes that these values have been maintained for too long and are only causing the people to become even poorer and more marginalized than before.
While criticisms against cultural groups should be generally taken with a grain of salt, J.D. Vance is an insider of the culture he criticizes, therefore his words actually have weight behind them. Whether or not you agree with him that “Hillbilly” culture is to blame for the societal rot rather than economic instability, there is no denying that his elaborate arguments deserve a lot of consideration seeing as how they are based on facts and first-hand experience.
With that being said, I have to say that one part of Vance’s reflections really stuck with me, and it’s the one relating to personal responsibility. He does indeed recognize that forces outside of his control have influenced and directed his life (as is the case for countless others), and that many people find themselves powerless in the face of the dreadful circumstances they are born into. However, he doesn’t simply point the finger of blame up into the sky and leave it at that. Rather, as the book progresses he seems to come closer and closer to the conclusion that while we cannot control everything, our decisions still matter to a great degree and do influence our fate. In other words, while you don’t choose the hand you’re dealt, you’re still the one deciding how to play it.
Some Final Thoughts
To wrap this thing up, Hillbilly Elegy is a one-of-a-kind book that shines the spotlight on a forgotten group of people who are in dire need of help. Vance takes us to previously unseen depths in an attempt to make sense of the whole situation and see what causes the vicious cycle of abuse, alcoholism, poverty and violence to perpetuate the way it does in the Rust Belt. It’s not an easy book to read, exposing many inconvenient truths and uncomfortable realities that some people would rather keep buried… and that’s precisely what makes it an essential piece of American literature. It’s an incredible examination of poverty and marginalization amongst the white working class, and I believe that anyone calling themselves an American (or perhaps simply interested in the topic, that will do just fine) ought to read it at least once.