Hillbilly Elegy (Vance)

Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
J.D. Vance, 2016
HarperCollins
272 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062300546



Summary
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 forty 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, aunt, uncle, 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. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1984
Born—Middletown, Ohio, USA
Education—B.A., Ohio State Universtiy; J.D., Yale University
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California


J.D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and spent many summers in the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky. He enlisted in the Marine Corps after high school and served in Iraq. A graduate of the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, he has contributed to the National Review and is a principal at a leading Silicon Valley investment firm. Vance lives in San Francisco with his wife and two dogs. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
[A] compassionate, discerning sociological analysis of the white underclass that has helped drive the politics of rebellion, particularly the ascent of Donald J. Trump. Combining thoughtful inquiry with firsthand experience, Mr. Vance has inadvertently provided a civilized reference guide for an uncivilized election, and he's done so in a vocabulary intelligible to both Democrats and Republicans…. Whether you agree with Mr. Vance or not, you must admire him for his head-on confrontation with a taboo subject. And he frames his critique generously, stipulating that it isn't laziness that's destroying hillbilly culture but what the psychologist Martin Seligman calls "learned helplessness"—the fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.
Jennifer Senior - New York Times


[Vance’s] description of the culture he grew up in is essential reading for this moment in history.
David Brooks - New York Times


[Hillbilly Elegy] is a beautiful memoir but it is equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America….[Vance] offers a compelling explanation for why it’s so hard for someone who grew up the way he did to make it…a riveting book.
Wall Street Journal


[A] frank, unsentimental, harrowing memoir...a superb book.
New York Post


Vance isn’t a hillbilly at all. I ordered Vance’s book in the hope that his story would be a frank look at the lives of the less fortunate people around me who face the struggles of the hillbilly culture and Appalachian economy daily. But Vance’s story is one about how his grandparents’ sacrifices made it possible for him to be where he is today. That makes his critique of the hillbilly culture in crisis ring empty.
Brandon Kiser - Lexington Herald-Leader


[Hillbilly Elegy] couldn’t have been better timed...a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations...an honest look at the dysfunction that afflicts too many working-class Americans.
National Review


[A]n American classic, an extraordinary testimony to the brokenness of the white working class, but also its strengths. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… [T]he most important book of 2016. You cannot understand what’s happening now without first reading J.D. Vance.
Rod Dreher - American Conservative


J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, offers a starkly honest look at what that shattering of faith feels like for a family who lived through it. You will not read a more important book about America this year.
Economist


The troubles of the working poor are well known to policymakers, but Vance offers an insider’s view of the problem.
Christianity Today


In this compelling hybrid of memoir and sociological analysis, Vance....observes that hillbillies like himself are helped not by government policy but by community that empowers them and extended family who encourages them to take control of their own destinies. Vance's dynamic memoir takes a serious look at class.
Publishers Weekly


Vance compellingly describes the terrible toll that alcoholism, drug abuse, and an unrelenting code of honor took on his family, neither excusing the behavior nor condemning it…The portrait that emerges is a complex one…. Unerringly forthright, remarkably insightful, and refreshingly focused, Hillbilly Elegy is the cry of a community in crisis.
Booklist


Growing up in Appalachia may leave a person open to harsh criticism and stereotype, yet Vance delves into his childhood and upbringing to make a clear distinction between perception and reality.... A quick and engaging read. —Kaitlin Malixi, formerly at Virginia Beach P.L.
Library Journal


(Starred review.) A Yale Law School graduate's account of his traumatic hillbilly childhood and the plight of America's angry white working class. "Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash," writes Vance, a biotech executive and National Review contributor. "I call them neighbors, friends, and family."... An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, consider these LitLovers talking points for Hillbilly Elegy...then take off on your own:

1. In what way is the Appalachian culture described in HillBilly Elegy a "culture in trouble"? Do you agree with the author's description of the book's premise:

The book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

2. Follow-up to Question 1: Vance suggests that unemployment and addiction are self-inflicted and that the Appalachian culture is one of "learned helplessness"—individuals feel they can do nothing to improve their circumstances. Do you agree with Vance's assessment? What could individuals do to improve their circumstances? Or are the problems so overwhelming they can't be surrmounted?

3. What are the positive values of the culture Vance talks about in Hillbilly Elegy?

4. The author's mother is arguably the book's most powerful figure. Describe her and her struggle with addiction. How did the violence between her own parents, Mawaw and Papaw, affect her own adulthood?

5. To What—or to whom—does Vance attribute this escape from the cycle of addiction and poverty?

6. Talk about Vance's own resentment toward his neighbors who were on welfare but owned cellphones.

7. Follow-up to Question 6: Vance writes

Political scientists have spent millions of words trying to explain how Appalachia and the South went from staunchly Democratic to staunchly Republican in less than a generation.... I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largess enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about.

Does his book address those two separate but related issues satisfactorily?

7. Critics of Hillbilly Elegy accuse Vance of "blaming the victim" rather than providing a sound analysis of the structural issues left unaddressed by government. What do you think?

8. What does this book bring to the national conversation about poverty—its roots and its persistence? Does Vance raise the tone of discourse or lower it?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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