Hillbilly Elegy… but is it hopeful?

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

3 words: unflinching, troubling, personal

OK, this one’s really something. I just keep thinking about it, and that probably isn’t gonna stop anytime soon.

Vance grew up in poverty in Appalachia, and he tells his story with some serious candor.

His family had it all going on: drug addiction, mental illness, abuse…  you name it, they had it. He grew up bearing close-range witness to a boatload of dysfunction.

And somehow, he got himself out and attended Yale Law School.

So the big question that pulls you through the book is: How did he do it?

(Answer: A dedicated grandma, plus the military)

This book’s primarily Vance’s personal story, but he interlaces it with some fascinating sociological facts and studies that give the bigger picture, as well.

(Every time I write the name “Vance,” I remember that he had to choose that name for himself, after years of surname changes due to his mother’s many marriages, his father’s giving him up for adoption, and oh my gosh this is a sad story in so many ways. Yet: then he claims a surname for himself that carries meaning, and that’s triumphant. So many feels to feel!)

I am decidedly not one of those people who loves to read the memoirs of dysfunctional families (my heart can’t take it), but I was able to stay with this one easily. I think it’s cuz we know Vance’s story has a mostly happy ending (though he still bears the emotional scars of his abusive childhood).

And it also strongly appealed to me because of the sociological/narrative nonfiction nature of the book. He makes this book about more than just himself, and that elevates it. Though, for some readers, this might be where the wheels come off. Citizen Reader conveys this nuance really well in her fine review.

Vance narrates the audiobook himself, and that worked out well. (It’s not always that way, when an author reads his/her own work.) Hearing the story in his own voice, with the emphasis placed exactly where he intended, added another dimension that enriched the reading experience.

Searing, stark, and extremely cautiously hopeful. A remarkable book that makes a person think.

by

Reader, librarian, & happy little geek

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