Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance – A Book Review

Several places where I read on-line had praised Vance’s book so I decided to read it.  I already knew basically what it was about but I guess I wanted to see what all the excitement was about.

J. D. Vance’s family came originally from Appalachia, specifically Jackson Kentucky. His maternal grandfather and grandmother moved to Middletown Ohio after WW II to let him get work in the steel factory there and his family became part of the boom economy in the industrial Mid-West that followed the war. But as that economic expansion slowly collapsed into the Rust Belt reality of the 1970s and beyond, his family more and more shared in the dislocation and finally the hopelessness of life in that blighted region.

Through the personal history of his family he presents evidence and draws conclusions about what internal and external factors led to the train wreck that is the Rust Belt.  And he tries to back up this evidence by including general information on the socio-economic and cultural characteristics of the white working class and specifically Appalachian people in question.

The personal story of his family and the details of their lives is poignant and honest and draws sympathy from anyone who came from a family that is full of complicated people who struggle and succeed and fail and generally make a messy story to tell.  It’s about the love and hate and anger and fear and confusion that consumed the first decade and a half of his life.  It’s got colorful characters like his grandparents who swear and spit and brandish guns and break down doors if strangers seem to threaten their family.  It’s his mother who tried to find a middle-class identity for her small family but was too damaged to even save herself from drugs and broken marriages.

In the final analysis I think that the point the book tries to make is that the people who left Appalachia were so ill-suited to live in the modern world of nuclear families and suburban society that only the post-war boom allowed even the illusion that they had assimilated into the Mid-Western lifestyle.  Their people were shorn of the support that multi-generational family units provided to them back in the hills and were surrounded by people who had been raised in and could take of advantage of the community resources that exist in middle America.  Vance’s family was always suspicious and angry at the school system and the police and the other government entities that could provide assistance to people in need.  Their independence when stripped of the extended family support structure meant isolation and poverty and an endless string of failures that reinforced the sense of hopelessness that eventually led to drug addiction and despair.

I think it’s a pretty interesting story.  And I recognize the components that he brings up as existing in the real world.  But he does let the powers that be off the hook to a degree that I think is unrealistic.  The post-war boom was a result of government policy that encouraged the harnessing of the human capital that had been freed up by the end of World War II.  Tens of millions of enlisted men were brought back to this country and it had been so thoroughly transformed that only massive top-down control allowed for the re-integration.  Thirty years later there was no similar top-down planning to continue that existence once the earlier generation disappeared from the work place.  The corporations were allowed to shift into a globalist mindset and because those Rust Belt workers were inconvenient because they made too much money or weren’t desperate enough to work like Japanese or Chinese workers they were dismissed from the plans of industry.

Vance may slightly touch on this but his thesis is that personal responsibility and family support systems are what saved him.  When his mother’s chaotic lifestyle came close to destroying his chance at building a healthy life his grandmother stepped up and provided a stable and supportive home in which he was able to re-apply himself at school and finally prove to himself that it was possible for him escape from the cycle of failure and break through to the normal world.

Okay.  His emphasis makes sense based on his experience and world view.  I think there is another side to the present crisis and he somewhat touches on this too.  Some say he is blaming the victims.  I think that overstates it.  I think it’s an interesting book.  I know it made me reconsider some things in my past.  And the anecdotes about his grandparents and that generation of his family are fun to read.  His family is somewhat in volved in the Hatfield and McCoy feud interestingly enough.  I’m not sure that this book is for everyone but if you are interested in the dynamic that has laid waste to the Rust Belt it might be something for you to read.

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xavier
xavier
13 days ago

I like the book because it shows that families have cultures that perpetuate poverty. I think it also refutes the knee-jerk connection between poverty and race. While it’s true that family culture and the surrounding society both impact the individual, simply having a father and abstaining from substance abuse basically immunizes children from most social ills.

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