August 18, 2017
Do you love memoirs?
Genre: a memoir, nonfiction, biography, sociology, poverty
“I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact
that spiritual and material poverty has
on their children.”
Hillbilly Elegy is a thought-provoking, powerful, and sincere memoir about growing up in a white working-class family in a poor Rust Belt town in Ohio. A Yale Law School graduate and a former marine, J. D. Vance is originally from Kentucky’s Appalachia region. His grandparents who were “dirt poor and in love” moved the family to Ohio in the hopes of escaping devastating poverty. Throughout the memoir, we learn that despite a geographical move, the family was never able to entirely escape the hillbilly culture of alcoholism, poverty, abuse, and trauma. Even though J. D. Vance beat the odds and graduated from law school, he still struggles to come to terms with his chaotic family history. The memoir is filled with detailed, humorous, dramatic, and colorful examples of what his life was like.
Amazon Rating (August): 4.4 Stars.
Book clubs and friends could discuss Hillbilly Elegy for hours. The following personal thoughts represent only a few of the many discussion topics this book offers.
The most important thought for me is that the impact of his grandparents’ love affected his life. All through school, he was a bright student; however, when his grades started falling in middle school he states that it wasn’t the teachers or the school that was at fault, rather it was the chaos at home (living with his mom) and in his community that affected his school performance. After he went to live with his grandparents officially, this is what he writes: “What I remember most of all is that I was happy–I no longer feared the school bell at the end of the day, I knew where I’d be living the next month, and no one’s romantic decisions [mom’s rotation of boyfriends or husbands] affected my life. And out of that happiness came so many of the opportunities I’ve had for the past twelve years.” J. D.’s description of the stability his grandparents offered him caused me to reflect on the importance of the home in a child’s life and education. His grandparents were certainly less than perfect; in fact, they had serious flaws which would make one question his placement in their home. However, J. D. Vance lied to the caseworkers so that he would be ensured of being placed in their home because he didn’t think he could make it in life without their love and the stability they offered. Children can endure a lot if they feel loved. This doesn’t make the neglect right but love does make a difference. This reminds me of the story of Jeanette Walls in The Glass Castle…even though she suffered extreme neglect, I think she felt that both parents loved her which most likely made a great difference in her ability to achieve success. Another similarity between the authors is that both Jeanette and J. D. had an older supportive and nurturing sibling which added to the love and stability in their lives.
Upward Mobility and the Family
Hillbilly Elegy offers an in-depth look at the struggles of America’s white working class. J. D. Vance describes one incident when he was in a primary grade (I think 2nd but I don’t have the book here to look it up) that helped the reader think about how important family support is in upward mobility. He recounts sitting in class while the teacher was asking students to solve mental math problems. He felt great about his answer and was delighted when the teacher recognized his brilliant thinking. However, the next student to offer an answer explained how “times” could be used to reach the same answer. J. D. was shaken. How did this child know about “times” when he had never heard about “times.” He knew it couldn’t have been taught at school because he would’ve remembered and learned it. After some thought, he realized that the child who knew about “times” must have learned it somewhere other than at school and realized he must have learned it at home. He offers this profound reflection, “There existed a massive ignorance about how to achieve white-collar work. We didn’t know that all across the country–and even in our hometown–other kids had already started a competition to get ahead in life.” As a result of his classroom experience, J. D. went home and asked his mom and grandparents why he didn’t know about “times,” and grandpa spent the weekend teaching him “times” and division. His point in explaining the situation is to demonstrate that the competition starts at home with the support and “extras” that parents offer. He realized as early as 2nd grade that his poor community was already finding it difficult to compete in this area.
No Blame for Public Schools
J. D. Vance is clear that neither public schools nor public school teachers were to blame for his declining grades in middle and high school. He describes the situation as follows: “We didn’t live a peaceful life in a small nuclear family. We lived a chaotic life in big groups of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins.” He describes again and again how this chaos affected his education, “The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget–this, and not my sub-par public school, was the real barrier to opportunity.” Officially moving in with his grandparents provided the stability he needed to succeed in school.
Optimism vs. Pessimism
J. D. Vance relates throughout his stories the pessimism that permeates his community. Not only pessimism but blame. People he knew were always blaming someone else for their situation (the president, the government, taxes, etc.). When he came home from the military, one of his first observations was that he felt like an outsider, “For the first time in my life, I felt like an outsider in Middletown. And what turned me into an alien was my optimism.” He goes on to reflect that perhaps getting out of the community and entering the military and going away to college was the action he needed to take to achieve success, “It’s no surprise that every single person in my family who has built a successful home…married someone from outside our little culture.” The culture strongly defined by pessimism.
The Message From Home: Yay for grandparents!
Even though his chaotic childhood was filled with turmoil and trauma, J. D. Vance states, “Despite all the environmental pressures from my neighborhood and community, I received a different message at home [his grandparents’ home]. And that just might have saved me.”
As I read Hillbilly ElegyI thought of two memoirs (among several) where the authors were able to rise above poverty and their communities: The Glass Castle and We Beat the Streets. In The Glass Castle, we also see the hillbilly culture mentioned as Jeanette’s family moved in with her father’s mom in Appalachia. From this move, we see that the way her father treated his children could in part be due to influence from the hillbilly culture. We Beat the Streets is a middle school read and while teaching I often referred my boys who were reading at grade level to this inspirational story about three kids who “beat the streets’ and became doctors. Theirs wasn’t a hillbilly culture but they were from a poor black community. Information about The Three Doctors Foundation can be found here.
There’s a lot more to talk about in Hillbilly Elegy! If you read it, I’m certain you’ll need to discuss it. In fact, at times your discussions might be heated because of different reactions to one person’s analysis of a culture in crisis. I love that the insights and ideas in this book can be applied to communities around the United States. The discussion is much broader than simple hillbilly culture.
Finally, this book gave me additional insight into the chaotic lives of students at my Title 1 school. It’s difficult to learn when children are preoccupied with what drama is going on at home and in the community.
Recommended for those working with poor communities, for readers who enjoy thought-provoking themes and rich discussion possibilities, and for fans of memoir. Hillbilly Elegy is representative of books that have the ability to build empathy and understanding of different cultures and communities.
My Rating: 4 stars
Meet the Author, J. D. Vance
J. D. Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, and 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.
Are you a fan of memoir? Please share your reflections on Hillbilly Elegy in the comments section. Did any of the themes mentioned challenge you in your thinking? How does this book compare with other memoirs you’ve read with similar themes? In addition, I’d love to hear what you’re reading.
Next week, Reading Ladies will reflect on our reading roots…and in two weeks we’ll review Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate if you’d like to “buddy read.” In three weeks I’ll review the long-anticipated (at least by me!) Glass Houses, a new installment in the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny (release date: 8/29 …. happy birthday to me!)
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