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

Listened to this as an audiobook narrated by the author, J.D. Vance and boy do I have a lot of thoughts about this.

First, I’ll comment on the actual memoir portion, which he states a kind of disclaimer in the introduction, since he is self-aware that he is only in his 30s and how unusual it is to write a memoir at that age. This also leads into why he then “beefs” up his book with the asides about Hillbilly culture, hence the “Culture in Crisis” phrase in the title.

In some ways, this book was uncomfortable for me to read, partially because Vance is a much more conservative author then I normally read, who to his credit attempts to balance his positions out or leave them out entirely. Vance has clearly done well for himself, having gone to Yale and become a successful lawyer, which is commendable, but in other ways detrimental, because he assumes and projects his experience upon his hillbilly culture backward and doesn’t seem to realize the forces that were in place for him to “succeed.” This isn’t to discredit his drive or ability, but to comment on his blind spot of not seeing that everyone cannot have the same drive.

All of this surmounted to how Vance tends to project his own view upon not only his own demographic, but everywhere across the country with this and offers his own means to “fix it” which amounts to personal change/choices, which is just not a realistic answer to an epidemic. This coupled with how he tends to overwrite all other demographics with the problems of the white working class, it just tends to come off a little tone deaf.

In other ways, this hit close to home, because I come from a lower-middle class family and some of his comments on “how they lived” while very different from how *I* lived were somewhat echoed in this. I mean, my mom was sick with a chronic autoimmune disease at home, while my dad was a chef(not the glamorous kind). We didn’t do the usual things most families did in that area, living in a beach town suburbia, and we didn’t have much, but we did have our small family growing up.

Hearing how close Vance was with his grandma was great and in some ways because of their relationship and how defining that was for him, I think the book should have ended much earlier, because the last 3-4 chapters felt more like fluff than truly coming around to his grand conclusion. Either way,  it is a decently written memoir, but one that blurs the lines between creating a research paper and writing a personal essay on the same topic.


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