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Book cover for Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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

Author: J. D. Vance

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Memoir

Themes: Personal Struggle, Culture, Working-class America

Format: Audio Book

Finished: December 1, 2016

Purchase link

I put out a call on Facebook asking for audiobook recommendations and multiple friends suggested Hillbilly Elegy. The Audible version is read by the author, which adds a wonderful dimension of realism, truth, and beauty to the narration.

What I Learned

  • I didn’t realize that the hillbilly community has a very collective, shared-space, extended-family mindset. Walking into an aunt or uncle’s home uninvited and staying seems to be the norm according to Vance. People in that community don’t see it as imposing.
  • Economic insecurity is a damning thing to the human psyche
  • Hillbilly virtues include:
    • Keeping things in the family
    • Standing up for familial honor
    • Poor should never steal from the poor
    • Mistrust of outsider and elites
  • To many hillbillies, the white vs black dichotomy isn’t nearly as much of an issue as many people think it is. The real dichotomies are rich vs poor and working class vs elite. In short, insider vs outsider. Poor whites and blacks in the same community share the same problems and tend to empathize with each other in a way that transcends racism.
  • None of us come up on our own. There are always people who have shaped us into who we are today. We should be mindful of their influence on our lives.
  • This community has obviously had a huge impact on this past election. Digging into the psychology of people in this community makes it much more difficult to paint them all as racist, uneducated, and backward.
  • Learned helplessness is destroying this community — the fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot. Despair.
  • JD Vance argues that poverty only has a small structural/institutional component and that the cultural component is much larger and more important. These communities aren’t going to be fixed from the outside or from policy changes. They will only be changed from the inside and it will be a slow, painful process. Personal responsibility to both your own commitments and to help those around you. Realizing that you CAN do things to change your lot in life. That YOU can improve your life and the lives of those around you.

Personal Reflection

This book hit close to home for me because there are so many parallels between the authors story and my family’s. I definitely didn’t go through the hardship that most of his family went through, but much of my extended family (twice and thrice removed, etc) has suffered or still suffers from the crippling poverty, drinking, drug addiction, anger, health, and relationship issues that plague the hillbilly community.

Three out of my four grandparents and their families are from West Virginia and eastern Tennessee. They either consider(ed) themselves hillbillies or at least acknowledge(d) that they have hillbilly heritage. My maternal grandmother grew up in a coal mining camp where her father was paid in tokens that could only be spent at the company store. My paternal grandfather had 13 brothers and sisters, most half and step. He and one of his brothers had to dig their father’s grave by hand. My paternal great grandmother supposedly tried to have my great grandfather killed after they split up. My grandparents some how escaped that cycle, for which I am very thankful. They left shrinking coal mining communities and went to small Ohio towns in search of jobs and a better life, leaving that hillbilly support network behind.

I have a lot of hillbilly tendencies, for better or worse. This book made clear to me how much I’ve picked up from my hillbilly heritage. It also showed me how far my family has come out of that culture. I’m so thankful for what my grandparents went through to change their lives. The businesses they started, the long hours they worked, their frugality, their sense of personal responsibility and self-reliance.