Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance: A Review

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance is the story of growing up in a massively complicated, loving, and dysfunctional white family in Ohio and Kentucky at a time when good-paying jobs were disappearing. He also shows how his family suffered the transgenerational effects of addiction and violence.

Vance’s memoir is, in part, a love story portraying his relationships with hisgrandmother, “Mamaw,” who gave him stability and encouraged him to learn, and with his older sister Lyndsay, who parented him when his mother was in her addiction. He writes an hysterically funny account of what Vance calls Hillbilly culture. Mamaw, for example, threatened to run people over at regular intervals for various offenses.

Most interesting to me was his showing the bi-directional connections between family violence/addiction/alcoholism and the economic implosion of the Rust Belt against which all this dysfunction occurred. He shows how economic collapse and family collapse can feed on each other. He calls out his own people for what he sees as flaws, not taking responsibility for trying harder to pull things together. But the book is fundamentally one of thanks for his cultural inheritance, one that grounded him in a kind of family cohesion and dense connection that we all need to be whole and healthy.

Hillbilly Elegy is a a searing, endearing, life-affirming read. Thanks to Fareed Zakaria for recommending it!

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