I first heard of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance when a friend recommended the book to me after yet another heated discussion regarding the current volatile political climate.
According to her, this book was the inside look we needed to understand the minds of Donald Trump supporters, poor working-class whites, and the people we just couldn’t relate to no matter how hard we tried. Vance, a self-proclaimed “hillbilly” from America’s Rust Belt, grew up in a community I’d only seen on television, and yet, writes so simply and eloquently that I can clearly imagine the likes of Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, as if I, too, have strong ties to places I’ve just learned the existences of.
From the introduction, Vance has no pretensions about what his memoir will be. This isn’t the book for you if you’re looking for an in-depth academic study on the subject; it is the first-hand experiences of a man who has watched his family, friends, and community struggle to reach the American Dream we’ve all been sold on. He wants his readers to follow his journey from a child born into poverty, violence, drugs, and a continuous revolving door of father figures to a successful Yale Law School graduate with a loving family of his own.
According to statistics, he, and other kids like him, had abysmal chances of getting out of their hometowns let alone enjoy the upper middle-class lives they wished to glimpse as children. So how did he beat the odds?
Throughout Hillbilly Elegy, we learn how important strong adult role models were to Vance. Without the unconditional love and support of his grandparents, Papaw and Mamaw, he could have just as easily followed in the self-destructing footsteps of many before him. His honest criticisms of his own people are refreshing in a time when people from all over the political spectrum shift the blame onto other groups.
Although he explains the conditions of how a group of people in America came to be a certain way, he gives no excuses for his fellow hillbillies’ self-induced problems. Yes, it is important to understand the institutional and social failures that have affected these people, but government policies can only help so much until they start taking some of the responsibilities for themselves.
What Vance does so well in Hillbilly Elegy is his ability to showcase the best of people with the most inevitable of shortcomings. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to kids who never asked to be born in these conditions. We can hate the adults all we want, but most—if not all of those adults—were traumatized kids who go on to traumatize future generations in a never-ending cycle of misery.
Armed with a new perspective of people politically different from me, do I feel sympathetic to their plights in 2017? I’m still left grappling with this question as I see how their opinions, actions, and votes affect so many innocent people. While Vance was able to successfully humanize poor working-class whites who have long felt left out of the political loop, I wanted him to address how their choices have left other marginalized groups grappling with policies that target them specifically. I wished Vance could have spoken more on some of the poor working-class whites’ racist, misogynist, and xenophobic treatments of the rest of America and how they justify the rhetoric spewed by the extreme right. He explains how they fear what they don’t understand, but that wasn’t enough to keep me sympathizing with the plight of the poor working-class whites.
Even though Vance specifically stated his book’s mission in the introduction, I was left wanting more. Gaining this perspective has made me realize how similar we all are as we try to survive in this country, but like Vance, I can’t excuse all the behaviors of poor working-class whites like the ones in his book.
If nothing else, the book made me realize how blaming people we don’t understand and calling them names will get us nowhere. We can relate to them and we all have to figure out a way to get extreme sides of the political spectrum acknowledge our similarities rather than our differences. Nonetheless, I believe reading Hillbilly Elegy will at least get the conversation started.