Staff pick: “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance


J.D. Vance’s memoir tracks his life from a gut-wrenching childhood through the Marines, Ohio State University and Yale Law School, to his current career as a lawyer. Vance writes about his success against long odds and why so many of his peers experienced failure.

If you could imagine Vance not as a blue-eyed “hillbilly” with Kentucky roots but as the child of a poor, inner-city working-class family in St. Louis, the story he tells would be recognizable and ring true. Early in his memoir, he pointed out that his life experiences growing up in poverty in the Rust Belt have much more in common with the experiences of poor African-Americans than with whites of other economic classes.

Although Vance refers to studies and data to broaden the application of his experiences to other socio economic groups in this country, the story is driven by his personal experience. The failures are common: drug and alcohol abuse, violence inside the home and schools, well-meaning but ultimately wrong-footed social agencies. The successes are unique to his experience but provide a pattern: loving relatives who supplied stability and escape from chaos and violence, the structured environment in the Marines that allowed him to mature, and the guidance of professors and friends. Throughout, he raises questions of personal, corporate, and societal responsibility inside the framework of economic instability.

Like an elegy, this memoir is a serious reflection on American culture, and although Vance has overcome much, the broader application is not as optimistic.

Hillbilly Elegy

Written by Barbara H.

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