Hillbilly Elegy

This book caught fire in 2016/2017 as an explanation for what ails the white working class in America, and why there was such a shift towards Republicans and specifically Donald Trump. After listening to the audiobook, I understand why that was the case. And it certainly does shed light on some insights, though (as the author fully disclaims) it does not provide specifics or ideas on how to alter the “culture in crisis” from the subtitle.

It was a really good book. J.D. Vance is a bright person, who has quite the life story to tell. Hence, writing a memoir at the ripe age of 31. He grew up in a poor neighborhood in eastern Kentucky, spending his formative years both there and southern Ohio. He was steeped in ‘hillbilly culture’ which meant defending his family’s honor, skepticism of outsiders, mistrust of authority, abuse, and often generational poverty. They loathed those who were on welfare and called them lazy, but often received some version of government assistance themselves. These influences weighed heavily on him as a child, but was lucky enough to have a caring set of grandparents who helped him develop; they taught him right from wrong, studied with him, and helped guide his growth. In addition, he had other aunts and uncles that guided him along the straight and narrow — and one ultimately guided him into the Marines, four years that changed his life. His description of that time is fantastic — short, perhaps, but full of the meaning of serving and how the services develop you as a full person. They teach basic financial skills, they teach healthy eating (after basic training, where shoveling food is the most efficient way to get sufficient calories), they teach respect, and they teach perhaps the most important character trait that he needed to escape the poverty cycle: agency. The belief that he had the ability to choose his own future, and decide how to act on his life’s opportunities.

After four years of service, he went quickly through Ohio State, and then onto Yale Law School. While at Yale, he came to realize that the well-off operate on a different plane than do those underprivileged; rather than submitting an application for a job and hoping to get called, the privileged class use contacts to ensure they get an interview. He met a girl, ultimately his wife, and came to find that her family rarely raised their voices at each other, and nobody spoke ill of other family members behind their backs. There was no violence in the home, and people appeared to genuinely like each other. He came to realize that culture and structure is keeping people in smaller cities or ‘rust belt’ areas impoverished, and concludes that both external assistance and internal improvements must be made. He acknowledges the ability of government to make improvements at the margins, but does focus his worries on the idea that it’s culture, not government, that will need to change before impoverished areas can improve.

I really enjoyed the book. It’s another great audio book, as Vance himself reads it, and the stories are engaging and characters memorable. The big takeaways include a better understanding of Appalachian culture, an appreciation for the primacy of education to help elevate people out of poverty (education almost always factors in people’s ability to elevate themselves), and the value of experiencing both of America’s cultures, which we simplify as rural and urban. The book affected me on a personal level as well, most notably because as he recounted stories from his youth, they helped me recall the same experiences — when 9/11 happened, when OJ Simpson was found innocent, the Iraq war, etc. I have also had the opportunity to experience multiple American cultures, though to a less extreme degree than Vance. My upbringing, while modest, involved a father getting his Ph. D. and a mother with a Masters degree in education. I was set up for success, and hope to be finding it. The parallel I felt with Vance is that Midwestern city life is different from east-coast city life, and it does come from the culture and attitudes of the people. Most people do not understand it, and thus fear it (I was recently in a training class, and a woman who has lived her entire life on Staten Island was flabbergasted when I said I was from Nebraska; she’s never met anyone who has ever been there, and looked at me very weirdly. It was a bizarre experience.). His perspective is a valuable one, and I hope that he continues to explore ways to help the culture in crisis, and to bring his human story to those who have never experienced that type of insularity and poverty.