Audiobook Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Publisher: HarperAudio
Release Date: June 28, 2016
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.

J.D. Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio. His grandparents moved there from the hills of Kentucky in search of a better life. However, you can take the hillbillies out of the hills but you can’t take the hills out of the hillbilly. Vance’s life was chaotic. His mother was married multiple times and none of the men were really any good. She was also a drug addict. J.D. alternated living with her and his Mamaw (grandma), a tough as nails old woman who didn’t take any guff from anyone. She loved Vance fiercely in her own way and was the one stable, caring person in his life, other than his sister Lindsey.

Vance was a terrible student and almost didn’t graduate high school. He put off college to serve a four-year stint in the Marines and only then did he mature and learn how to navigate the adult world. Growing up in a blue collar world, he didn’t know that a person should wear a suit to a job interview. He didn’t know that you should shop around for a lower interest rate instead of financing your car through the dealership. He didn’t know what sparkling water is. Okay, that one is probably not essential knowledge, but still! Armed with the maturity the Marines gave him, Vance was able to graduate with honors from Ohio State and go on to Yale law school.

Hillbilly Elegy has been touted as THE book to read if a person wants to understand why our current president was elected. It supposedly gives insight into what people in the rust belt were thinking when they voted for him. While I thought that Hillbilly Elegy was a good memoir and that Vance had an interesting life story that is worth telling, I didn’t feel like I knew any more about why his people voted the president.

At the end of the book, Vance talks about how hillbillies have a choice whether or not to overcome their upbringing and become successful like he did. But then he says that he never could have done it without the stabilizing force of his Mamaw and the maturity he learned in the Marines. He flat out says that he doesn’t know how hillbillies can pull themselves up by their bootstraps but they just should. And he knows for sure that government policies aren’t the answer. Did I mention that Vance works at the investment group that the president’s buddy Peter Thiel founded? Vance didn’t vote for the president however – he voted for Evan McMillin (who?). Neither of these facts are in the book.

In part because of the success of this book, Vance plans to move back to Ohio and set-up a non-profit that will focus on the opioid crisis and improving vocational education. So he is looking into solutions now. I think it would be great if he wrote a follow-up book in a few years to give us an update on how it’s going. I think improving vocational education is a fantastic idea. Not everyone is cut out for college and some blue-collar jobs pay quite well.

I listened to the audio version of this book. Vance narrates it himself and does a good job. Because of the nature of this book, I think that reading the print version wouldn’t be much different.

I don’t want to sound like I didn’t learn anything from Hillbilly Elegy. I did, I just didn’t have an epiphany like the hype led me to believe I would. However, it is a good memoir that was enjoyable to read.

  • bermudaonion(Kathy)

    I didn’t get a feel for why people voted for Trump from this book but I did get a feel for “hillbilly” or “redneck” society which helped me understand my sister-in-law a lot more.

  • Kate Scott

    I’m from Boston–just about as opposite from Vance’s culture as you can get–and I found this book to be pretty revelatory. The explanation as to why his people voted for Trump as I understood it was because he speaks their language, even if his policies won’t actually help them.

    It’s interesting that Vance voted for McMillin. I gather that he was kind of the go-to third party candidate for the “never Trump” conservative crowd.

    • ChaosIsAFriend

      Maybe the fact that I live in the Midwest is why I didn’t find it as revelatory as some people did.

  • susan

    Nice review Rachel. I’m on the waiting list for this audio at the library. I think it sounds like an interesting memoir even if I don’t learn too much but I suspect I’ll find out a bit.