Hillbilly Elegy

by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s memoir describing his uncommon escape from poverty in America’s Rust Belt to eventually graduate Yale Law School. The author takes us through his experiences to describe what he sees as drivers of poverty to help readers better understand why so many become trapped in the lower class, why stories of upward mobility such as his own prove so rare.

Vance starts his story evoking a real sense of nostalgia, romantically recalling the acts of seeming lunatics in his family––his one uncle chasing him with a switchblade as a child, another running an electric saw over a man he beat unconscious, for example. Doing so gives a strong picture of who the author was as a child, how he created almost a mythos of respectable criminals, along the lines of John Dillinger, whom he could be proud were his relatives, and the wide-eyed wonder with which he viewed these hillbillies heroically. Simultaneously, making us see his cast of characters in this light both grabs our attention early on and starts to give great context for what may not always seem like lucid behaviour to outsiders, such as myself. Shortly thereafter, the author switches gears, taking a sober look at intergenerational trauma starting with his grandparents after they moved from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in search of a better life. There, they found themselves outside the dominant culture, not fitting in no matter how hard they tried, not being respected by middle-class Ohioans, and this just added to the baggage they brought with them.

Throughout Hillbilly Elegy, the author acknowledges how lucky he was to emerge from this trauma successfully. Like many in such a situation, he experienced a great deal of instability in his young life after his parents split up, constantly moved in with strangers whenever his mother found a new man; he similarly lived in fear as his mother’s addictions became apparent and she became increasingly unpredictable. His academic life suffered as a result, but the damage was lessened by the security offered by his grandmother. His upbringing stunted his confidence and caused him to act out partially due to a perceived lack of agency, but he credits his eventual military training for helping with both and providing needed structure in the process. He observed a staggering ignorance he had, bred through cultural differences between classes and leading to less opportunity to the poor––his time at Yale showed him things that the rich are taught at a much younger age.

The underlying point of Vance’s argument seems to be that there’s no easy solution to remedy the inequality we see clearly in contemporary America. Significant cultural changes need to occur before a lasting impact can be made. While this may strike readers as too vague an answer to prove useful, he points to several factors that may act as a rudimentary road map to hopefully, one day, help get us somewhere meaningful.